Scandals in the wind


Lurking in damp, dark alleyways all decked out in trench coats and trilbys, exposing corruption and revealing the truth - another typical day in the life of your average journalist. Sort of. Journalists have to write about all manner of, eh, incredibly important things all the time. Most articles, television or radio reports are based on readily available information, such as press releases, court cases or Dail debates, often followed-up with a phone call or two. However, the work of an investigative journalist involves digging out information someone is trying to hide. Getting at this sort of story tends to take a lot of time, not to mention energy, patience and determination. But how journalists might first stumble upon a story, and how far they get with it, often amounts to that most elusive of things - luck.

Having a cup of coffee with a pal might lead to the most astonishing story of the year. Your pal might be a nurse, she might be a teacher - but as luck would have it, she's just happened to hear something about someone which could set a journalist off on an incredible journey, leading to extraordinary tales of intrigue, corruption and deceit. Your first whiff of a story can come from almost anywhere. It might be entirely accidental, you might simply overhear a private conversation in a pub or be working on a completely innocuous story. As a matter of routine, journalists would check in with their network of contacts for information on what might be going on. On the other hand, you might find an anonymous letter on the desk one morning, or a secret government document; it could be a phone call, or a fax. When a journalist has built up a reputation, he or she becomes more and more likely to get these calls and letters. If you're Charlie Bird or Sam Smyth, you probably get them every week.

One publication, the fortnightly Phoenix magazine, owes many, many of its stories to the fact that "whistleblowers" know they will get a good hearing there. As a result, many scandals get their first public mention in its pages.

However, where someone, anonymous or otherwise, spills the beans, the first question any good investigative journalist will ask is: why? Why this story? Why now? Sure, there might be the occasional extremely civic-minded person who genuinely believes the public has a right to know. But, more often, people decide to reveal a story because they have something to gain. News, as they say, is something which someone, somewhere doesn't want told - but it would also appear to be something which someone, somewhere does want told.

Should journalists ignore tips from people who would appear to be using the media to "get even"? If the information is genuinely of public concern, does the source's motivation matter? One way or another, in most responsible publications a major expose does not tend to be based on one person's story. Usually the initial contact leads to someone else, and indeed on and on, through quite a few people.

The story has to be thoroughly checked out, and there will often have to be some written evidence to substantiate claims: journalists will have to find and get copies of those documents. If somebody is leaking a story to the media, he or she will generally co-operate and supply that sort of evidence. But journalists may have to go searching, checking for evidence through places like the Companies Office and planning offices - and, more recently, requesting information under the Freedom of Information Act. In countries like the US when there is a longer tradition of freedom of information, many stories are unearthed by journalists who go looking through government documents. This is still unusual here.

It isn't always appropriate to publish a story, even when all the facts are in. This decision can be based on anything from a newspaper's broader agenda to the need to show sensitivity towards, e.g., family members who might be adversely and unfairly affected by publication of a story.

Then, of course, there are our notorious libel laws, which make it very difficult to say anything damaging about anyone. A journalist who knows a story to be true - but also knows he or she would not have enough evidence, including witnesses, to prove that in court - will usually have to refrain from publishing it.

But anyway, at the end of the day, what difference does investigative journalism make? A government might fall because of a story revealing political corruption, but will the new one be any better? Do we all sit at home reading about an ex-Taoiseach blowing thousands of pounds a week, getting money from businessmen and having huge bank debts written off, and feel powerless? Stories which may take years of investigation, and ultimately reveal phenomenal corruption, might just lead to a few red faces or damaged careers. Still, sometimes stories expose truths which force governments to enact legislation which ensures the same thing never happens again.