Fines on media could fund investigative journalism

Sat, Sep 29, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:The new Mary Raftery Journalism Fund aims to be a critical tool in preserving democracy

JOURNALISM – OR what is now rather sentimentally called traditional journalism – faces a challenge that really can be called existential. The digital revolution has brought change on a scale that is as irresistible as it is profound and, matched with a global recession, the result is freefall. Digital has done to newspapers and to the human architecture of old media what the motorcar did to the ass-and-cart – and to the ass-and-cart drivers.

The print media’s former customers have now become their own publishers. The walls between the professional and the outside amateur have collapsed. The broadcast media is also affected. We witnessed last week the closure of RTÉ’s London office for budgetary reasons, and advertising revenue is increasingly migrating to the digital world.

Budgets are squeezed and journalism has to suffer as a consequence. Investigative journalism is an expensive commodity, but it is also a vital commodity for the holding of the State and of its institutions to account – and nothing represents the truth of that more than the journalism of Mary Raftery.

In Britain, part prompted by the telephone-hacking scandal that prompted the Leveson inquiry, a House of Lords select committee began an investigation into “The Future of Investigative Journalism”, embarking upon an extensive engagement with, among others, regulators, government ministers, media owners and journalists.

It was an exercise that legislators in this country might do well to emulate. The committee’s report, published in February, set out the worth of investigative journalism alongside the challenges, but it also defined its terms.

Investigative journalism – as opposed to other kinds of reporting – is characterised as that which requires a significant investment in terms of resources and/or funding, runs a high risk of potential litigation and uncovers previously unreported issues of public interest.

Mary Raftery’s journalism ticked all of those boxes. Many of us are aware of the barriers she encountered, at times within RTÉ itself, as she sought to have her and her team’s work afforded its appropriate space in the station schedules. At the commemoration service for Mary in the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, her husband David spoke of the impact this had on her both emotionally and physically. Yet, almost by definition, investigative journalism and its practitioners have to meet and seek to overcome obstacles that challenge them in the way Mary and her team were challenged.

Anything of worth, anything that churns up the institutions – private or public – of a State to a point where those institutions have profoundly to change will always be met by the human defensive desire to resist, to avoid.

At its best, said the UK report, investigative journalism informs and educates us, enhances our democracy and is a force for good. It is a key part of the system of democratic governance and accountability. Yet rapid technological, economic and behavioural change is creating profound economic, legal and regulatory challenges for such journalism and how it might be conducted in future.

Investigative journalism is particularly vulnerable to economic pressures, as it is inherently risky and comes with no guaranteed return. We are all aware of the catastrophic outcome of the Prime Time Investigates – Mission to Prey programme, not just for the person at the centre of the story, but also for the journalists involved, most if not all of whom – I contend – set about their work with the highest of motivation.

One of the risks of such resource-heavy investigations is that at a certain point, hard decisions have to be made which may include the jettisoning of an entire, expensive piece of work. But that is the price.

In its conclusions, the Lords committee recommended that government and media explore a number of new ways in which the type of journalism that serves as a vital accountability tool in a democracy might be supported in the face of the declining revenues of traditional newspaper and broadcast media. One proposal was that such journalism could be deemed to have a charitable purpose, and so qualify for appropriate reliefs.

Some British politicians were forced to reach for the smelling salts when that was suggested, with the secretary of state for culture musing about the “curiosity” of being asked to support “something that is supposed to make my life difficult”. Even the committee found it difficult to give it a full-throated approval, yet if such journalism really is deemed to have a significant public interest benefit then the idea might merit, at the very least, further discussion.

A proposal that might be more politically attractive is that fines imposed on publishers and broadcasters by their regulatory or self-regulatory bodies for breaching codes of conduct could be used for an investigative journalism fund which individual journalists and media organisations could apply to.

This would have some merit, and if we consider that some of the €200,000 fine imposed on RTÉ by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland for the Prime Time Investigates programme might have been used to support the kind of work that the new Mary Raftery Journalism Fund is seeking to support, some real public good might have been wrested from that sad episode.

The Press Council of Ireland does not impose fines and it will be interesting to see whether a new system of press regulation in the UK seeks to so do. One potential downside of course is that we could have the “good” journalists hoping the “bad” journalists would be really really bad, so they could get lots more money to do the good journalism.

One could also imagine the accountancy headaches this proposal might pose in some large newspaper or media stables, with parcels of money being constantly passed over and back from one side the other.

The UK report also noted the successful growth of free-standing philanthropic institutions dedicated to investigative journalism. The ProPublica Institute in New York was singled out for attention, as was the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK. Both have done very impressive work to date.

We all know what happened to a similar venture, the Centre for Public Inquiry, that was started by Frank Connolly with the support of Atlantic Philanthropies some years ago. Frank Connolly, a former colleague of mine from the Sunday Business Post, was also a journalist who did groundbreaking work in this State.

I would hope this new initiative – the launch of the fund in Mary Raftery’s name – might prompt a re-engagement around the idea of the creation of a similar free-standing entity.

John Mair, a senior lecturer in broadcast journalism at Coventry University noted that “investigative journalists can be quite difficult people. They are good journalists, they are accurate, but they have two or three qualities that make them stand out. They have a sense of mischief. They like to cause mischief and they are also bloody determined . . . You will not put them off the scent”. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger simply said: “Investigative reporters’ brains are wired differently.”

Investigative journalism, of the kind practised by Mary Raftery and those who collaborated in her work, should not be easily or quickly done and should encounter some difficulty in finding a home. This initiative can be a trailblazer, a signifier of excellence, a raiser of standards and most of all a profound tribute to the memory of Mary Raftery.

Emily O’Reilly is Ombudsman. This article is an edited version of her speech at the launch on Wednesday of the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund. The €120,000 fund to promote investigative journalism and commemorate the work of the late Mary Raftery is sponsored for the next 12 months by The One Foundation

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