Mark Thompson, Director-General

Date: 25.09.2011     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 18.02

Speech at the International Press Institute's Annual World Congress, Taiwan
Sunday 25 September 2011

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This summer, as the News of the World shut down and as the British establishment began the long and gruesome process of trying to make sense of the phone-hacking scandal, at the BBC we were launching a TV drama about the journalism of more than fifty years ago.

The Hour is set in the BBC's Lime Grove studios in 1956, with the Suez crisis gathering pace in the background. It features some of the elements of the phone-hacking saga and plenty else besides – spin-doctors, conspiracies, censorship, personal and public betrayal.

But more than anything, The Hour is a love-letter to investigative journalism. And, because investigative journalism and its future is our theme this morning, it's where I'll begin.

What Freddie and Bel, the fictional heroes of The Hour, yearn for is a journalism about the things that matter. A journalism with the guts to hold the most powerful forces and institutions in the land to account.

Now it's easy to dismiss the portrayal of journalism in the The Hour as superficial and naive. Real investigations are rather less glamourous than either The Hour or All The President's Men suggest. Often they fail to uncover anything or – frustratingly – leave the journalist with too little hard evidence to publish anything.

But I've played that clip because I think it captures the conviction of investigative journalism at its best, its dogged high-mindedness about its mission.

I walked into the real Lime Grove in 1979. And, if you'd asked me why I'd come to work for the BBC, I'd have told you I wanted to become an investigative journalist.

What did I find in the BBC? The 80s was the decade of one controversial TV investigation after another – Zircon, Maggie's Militant Tendency, Death on the Rock – many of which were made in a Lime Grove which still had a Cold War undertow of MI5 vetting and nervous Governors and senior managers. It was the investigative journalist against the world. The investigative journalist as hero.

I managed to work with some of the strongest investigative journalists that the BBC and Britain has ever produced: John Ware, Peter Taylor, Tom Mangold among them.

To me, John, Peter and Tom are all examples of people who – although they are all infinitely more experienced than the fictional Freddie – are all motivated by a thoughtful, painstaking desire to get to the truth.

They are all people for whom the 'public interest' is not some infinitely elastic concept to justify any intrusion or journalistic malpractice, but it means something precise: the civic benefit, not just in terms of the public's right to know, but also – at least in principle - in terms of better policies and laws, and better conduct by public and commercial bodies alike, that may be derived by exposing the kinds of serious wrong-doing, deception, hypocrisy and unjustified secrecy that go beyond the private to have real and significant public ramifications.

No celebrity exclusives. No invasions of privacy where there aren't any public issues at stake. Instead, disinterested investigations into matters of substance. This is the kind of investigative journalism I believe in and which I've tried to support in every job I've done in British broadcasting, including my present one as Editor-in-Chief of the BBC.

Investigative journalism at bay

But investigative journalism – both broadcast and print – faces far greater threats today in 2011 than it did either in the 1950s or in those heady late Cold War years of the 1980s. I want to talk about these threats today and I'm going to focus almost entirely on the British case, not just because it's the one I know best, but because in the UK we are going through an unprecedented crisis in journalism, a crisis with the boundaries and techniques of investigative journalism at its heart. 

We don't yet know what will emerge from this crisis and from Lord Leveson's Inquiry which has just begun its work, but any recommendations about new laws or regulation will be studied with interest by Governments around the world. For this reason, and because I believe many of the threats to investigative are generic and are likely to apply wherever journalists work, I hope that you'll find my remarks this morning useful wherever you ply our trade.

Before the phone-hacking scandal, conventional wisdom suggested that traditional investigative journalism faced two threats: the first economic, the second related to the impact of the internet and new forms of journalism and disclosure it has enabled.

The economic one is so familiar I won't dwell on it for long. It is that – in common with other forms of quality journalism – the deteriorating business models for newspapers, in the developed world at least, may not be able to support the cost of mounting what are inevitably often expensive and protracted investigations.

The commercial fundamentals may not be quite so challenging in the global broadcast arena, but here too pessimists would point to the pressure on commissioners and schedulers to focus on those genres which bring in the largest number of viewers and commercial impacts: here too, they would argue, investigative journalism is under threat.

But it's worth pointing out that, in the UK at least, a number of newspapers – The Sunday Times, The Independent as well as The Guardian – clearly regard investigative journalism not just as vital in itself, but as a competitively valuable point of differentiation. Indeed recent editors at The Daily Telegraph have launched what is essentially a new tradition of major investigations, including their revelations about UK parliamentarians' abuse of their expenses, one of the journalistic coups of the past decade.

On British television, while the demise of World in Action has meant fewer investigations on ITV, both the BBC and Channel 4 continue to bring original journalism regularly to their viewers. The BBC programme Panorama, in particular, has had a striking series of investigative successes in recent years.

So although commercial pressures are undoubtedly making it difficult for some editors – especially those responsible for local and regional titles – to support as much investigative journalism as they would like, it's not obvious that economics alone will put paid to it.

So what about threat number two, which is that in the age of do-it-yourself, internet-distributed revelation, you simply won't need expensive, professional investigations anymore? Wikileaks, Matt Drudge, Guido Fawkes and a thousand others may deliver their scoops and insights with less precision and restraint than their traditional counterparts, but they deliver them all the same – and often more quickly and with less mediation and qualification than conventional journalistic practice would allow.

It's interesting though that Julian Assange and Wikileaks turned to an international group of newspapers including The New York Times, The Guardian, El Pais, Der Spiegel and Le Monde to help with the journalistic tasks of redaction and contextualisation. The internet is a perfect letter-box for whistleblowers and disclosers of every kind but – without the validation of professional editors and the credibility of established and respected media brands – the problems of provenance and believability loom large. Indeed the explosion of digital media has, if anything, strengthened the argument for a cadre of professionally-trained journalists to sift and make sense of it. How else can the public satisfy themselves that what they are reading or looking at is an important fact and not unsubstantiated gossip or a random element in someone's delusional conspiracy-theory?

A threat from within 

But what the phone-hacking scandal has thrown up, in the UK at least, is a third and in some ways much more serious threat, which is of an enemy within – a collapse of probity and restraint by journalists and editors themselves which risks making a mockery of the idea of 'the public interest' and robbing investigative journalism of its legitimacy and credibility.

Legitimate investigative journalism strays into intrusion only when topics of genuine public importance are at stake – and even then it takes care that the intrusion is proportionate to the matter at hand. 

There are some things which should always be out of the question. Serious criminality of any kind. 'Fishing expeditions' – in other words speculative acts of intrusion or entrapment where the journalists do not have strong prima facie evidence of serious wrong-doing. Nor should journalists use any techniques which they could not justify openly and clearly in public.

All of these rules seem to have been broken in the case of The News of the World. Given the industrial scale of the abuse and the apparent failure by editors and managers over years to confront it, it's hardly surprising that many people in the UK are asking themselves whether these practices are widespread across the whole of British journalism. The Leveson Inquiry will seek to find an answer to that question.

At the BBC, we've taken a close look at the period which Leveson is scrutinizing – back to the beginning of 2005 - and despite the many thousands of hours of output and millions of budget lines in scope, our ongoing review has not identified a single instance of phone-hacking or the bribery of police officers or any of the other malpractices which are alleged to have happened at The News of the World.

The character of broadcast investigative journalism is different in some respects from its counterpart in print. In TV, secret filming is always done with a view to broadcast – we always start off with the intention, not just of revealing a story to the public, but of showing the techniques we used to uncover it.

There are stringent controls moreover on when and how such techniques can be used. The BBC requires the decisions to involve senior editors and it depends on the team having already obtained substantial evidence of wrong-doing. At the BBC, we only do investigations with a clear public interest rationale, but even after that rationale has been established, there is still a debate about whether the methods the journalists propose to use are reasonable and proportionate.

Here's a clip from a recent edition of Panorama which revealed an appalling level of abuse of vulnerable young adults in a British care home.

That extract illustrates two of the issues editors had to consider before giving the team permission to film. The first is the intrusion that both care home workers and the victims of their abuse were subjected to. In this case, there was sufficient evidence of abuse to convince Tom Giles, the Editor of Panorama and David Jordan, our Director of Editorial Policy and Standards, that it was in the public interest to consent to secret filming. Indeed, after the programme was broadcast, there were a series of arrests and, indeed, it seems likely that the regulation and oversight of all such care homes will be improved as a result of it.

The second issue related to the young man who filmed what you've just seen and who we sent into the home posing a care assistant – something which is a technical breach of employment legislation. Again, the editorial decision-makers concluded that this relatively minor breaking of the rules was justified in the public interest, given the seriousness of the abuse and the fact that the body supposed to ensure appropriate standards in the care home industry had recently inspected this very facility and failed to detect, let alone stop the abuse.

In cases like this, the authorities have almost always ended up agreeing with that verdict - though not always at first. A few years ago, a BBC team did a consumer investigation into some trade guilds. The claim was that these guilds would offer anyone an accreditation which they could then use to impress prospective clients, not on the basis of thorough checks or indeed any evidence of any training or skill in the given trade, but simply in return for a registration fee.

To test the story, the team applied for accreditation from a woodworking guild in the name of a guinea-pig – I think the exact name was 'McGuinley Pig'. They sent off the application form with £10.99 and shortly thereafter Mr Pig's accreditation as a master craftsman duly arrived. The programme went out, the guild complained to the police and a few days later we got a call saying that the police were investigating a charge of forgery because of the false name on the form, and were proposing to interview the producer of the show under caution. They didn't ask to interview the guinea-pig himself – which is just as well because he was out putting in a kitchen – but in the end commonsense prevailed and the case was not pursued.

I don't believe that any level of public interest can ever justify investigative journalists taking part in, or soliciting others to take part in serious criminal activity. But sometimes breaking rules is the only way of substantiating an important story and can be justified.

The proportionate and reasonable approach that the authorities have generally taken to cases like these is an important condition for effective investigative journalism to thrive.

The importance of journalistic values

The investigative journalists I've worked with at the BBC and Channel 4 are among the best of any kind that I know. They never forget that investigations are full of potential ethical traps – not least because, just as with a police or judicial investigation, not everyone whom you start of suspecting of wrong-doing will turn out to be guilty. The possibility that you are following the wrong lead should always be in your mind as you consider each step in the investigation and specifically any proposal to use an intrusive technique like secret recording.

And – to state the obvious – it's both vital and often very difficult to get it right. Investigative journalists do not enjoy the sweeping powers of the police and the courts and often begin a story with little more than scraps of information. As everyone here knows, there is no substitute for checking, re-checking and subjecting the thesis you are pursuing to constant challenge from colleagues, editors, lawyers. The Guardian's investigation has taken years so far and isn't over yet.

Responsible investigative journalism doesn't just depend on the right rules and systems of oversight, it also relies on the determination of the journalists to do the right thing – in other words on journalistic values and culture. On another Panorama, this time about a series of incidents in which the British Army had shot people dead in Northern Ireland, I remember John Ware flying back to Belfast on the eve of transmission and going to a field somewhere in rural Ulster to find a man in a caravan who was a key witness in the programme. John had met and interviewed the man several times before. 'I just want to check,' he said. 'I just want to check again.'

As the Leveson Inquiry picks through the wreckage of the News of the World, it's important that the question of values isn't lost or deemed to be fully addressable by a new mechanic of regulation and oversight.

When the BBC had its own set of serious editorial lapses a few years ago – not in the context of investigative journalism, but ranging from serious shortcomings in on-air competitions to a misleading trail for a documentary about the Queen and an appalling lapse of taste on The Russell Brand Show – part of our response was a tightening of our rules and procedures for programme compliance. Inevitable and sensible, though as you can imagine in a creative organisation, not exactly wildly popular.

But the most important thing we did was to insist that all of our editorial decision-makers – and I mean literally thousands of producers and editors across the BBC – took part in a series of searching conversations about the failures in values and culture that had led us to let both ourselves and our audiences down on air.

It is not possible for any news organisation to guarantee the honesty of its journalism solely through management rules or through more stringent supervision. Too much investigative journalism takes place in the field, far from the watchful eye of the editor. You need teams of journalists who can be trusted to make the right ethical judgements even when they are on their own.

An agenda for reform 

So, in the light of the News of the World scandal, what might an agenda for reform in British journalism look like? How should you use some or all of the levers of regulation, legislation and cultural change to minimize the chances of a recurrence of these serious abuses and of dangerous, improper or even corrupt relationships between media, police and the political classes without impeding or constraining legitimate investigative journalism?

It might begin with an attempt to reached a shared understanding of what we mean by the term the public interest. There's probably no need for a new definition – both the BBC's Editorial Guidelines and the Code published by the UK's broadcast and telecoms regulator Ofcom contain useful language, for example. The important thing is that the industry accepts a common definition so that, when we mount a public interest justification, everyone – courts, regulators, public – know that we are all talking about the same thing.

I'm not suggesting that journalism without a clear public interest justification should be banned, by the way. In a free society, newspapers and others should have the right to publish whatever they want without prior restraint, though they must also face the consequences, legal and otherwise.

I am also sceptical of the view that newspapers should be regulated in the same way as broadcasters like the BBC who reach into every household in the land.

Plurality of regulation is a good thing. One of the safeguards that broadcasters in the UK have is the presence of a far less regulated press which can draw attention to any attempt by the authorities or anyone else to misuse their powers when it comes to broadcasting. To put all journalism under a singled converged regulator would potentially mean that, if ever the state wished to limit media freedom, it would have a single lever with which to do so.

Some propose an approach which is statutory but with guaranteed independence from the state and politicians. Such an approach is clearly possible in principle – both the BBC and Channel 4 are public broadcasters with proud and successful histories of constitutional separation from the state – but I doubt that this path would be as practical and fruitful as effective self-regulation.

The current British model of self-regulation of the press is not to be dismissed out of hand. It has been copied to differing degrees by many other countries because, at least in principle, it offers the prospect of striking the right balance between regulatory redress and press freedom. The UK Press Complaints Commission, the PCC, has a good record in arbitrating complaints and disputes. The PCC was not established as a regulator as such and it is not reasonable to criticise it for not doing things it is not designed or empowered to do.

But given what has been revealed over the past few months, to be sustainable in the future self-regulation would need radical reform. In particular, the self-regulatory body would have to be given the power to conduct unfettered investigations into complaints and, in cases where serious complaints are upheld, to impose fines or other sanctions on guilty parties. It's possible to imagine a system which is essentially self-regulatory but in which investigations are referred to and carried out by a statutory body – perhaps Ofcom – which could also enforce sanctions. But without investigative powers and sanctions, self-regulation will not survive. A further dilemma is how to ensure that the self-regulatory body remains independent of the interests of the most powerful newspaper interests.

One further test for the British press is whether in future it will have the courage to hold itself to account. Many national newspapers – and not just News International titles – showed a remarkable lack of interest in the phone-hacking story until it was simply too big to ignore. Often there were more column inches attacking the BBC for its coverage of the story than there were on phone-hacking itself.

For newspapers to fail to report on a matter of public interest because it is not in the interests of their industry is a betrayal of journalism and is exactly the kind of disreputable, self-serving behaviour which they routinely accuse other special interest groups of in the UK of indulging in.

At the BBC, we impose a strict barrier between the corporate interest and the news division. We endeavour to cover stories about ourselves with the same rigour and objectivity as we do any other story. Even if that is too high a bar, a reformed British press would at least ensure, by newspapers at least reporting objectively on each other, that as an industry it began to hold itself to account.

All of this might leave you with the impression that British journalism – or at least British print journalism – is broken. That simply isn't the case. Phone-hacking only came to light because of brilliant investigative journalism by the Guardian and in particular by Nick Davies and Amelia Hill who is here this morning. I've already noted outstanding investigations by the Telegraph and other newspapers. I could have talked about the Times and its brave exploration of aspects of the British Army's performance in Afghanistan including the decision to deploy to Helmand, or the London Evening Standard's shocking and moving Dispossessed campaign.

We should acknowledge a continued tradition of brave and outstanding journalism in British newspapers as well as energy and creativity which bear comparison with anywhere else in the world.

The fourth threat 

But there's a fourth threat to investigative journalism in the UK – which is of an over-reaction to the abuses at the News of the World.

There are many countries where investigative journalism is impossible or restricted to relatively 'safe' areas like consumer rights. But in all countries, there will always be some in authority who – whatever lip service they pay to press freedom – fear the consequences of unfettered investigative journalism.

I want to give a recent example affecting the BBC. It concerns an edition of Panorama about corruption in the football's world governing body, Fifa. In the run-up last autumn to Fifa's vote on where the 2018 and 2022 World Cups would be staged, both Panorama and The Sunday Times published independent investigations into Fifa. As soon as those involved in England's bid to stage the 2018 World Cup heard that a Panorama was in the works, they began a campaign to persuade us not to broadcast the programme until after the vote.

No one who spoke to me or any of colleagues ever suggested that the programme's allegations of corruption were likely to be false. Their point was simply that broadcasting the programme in the run-up to the vote might make it less likely that England would get the World Cup. No need to change the programme, but what difference would it make if the BBC took the patriotic path and simply held it back until after the vote.

Despite a fair bit of private lobbying and public campaigning, we broadcast the edition of Panorama. Russia, not England, was selected to host the 2018 World Cup and Qatar in 2022, though the margin of England's defeat was so great, and the revelations of Fifa's own subsequent investigation into abuses associated with the vote so shocking, that almost no one claimed that Panorama had tipped the balance. Nonetheless, months later ministers were still saying publicly that our decision to broadcast when we did had been a [quotes] 'nightmare.'

The truth is not a 'nightmare'. It's not something that should ever be delayed or curtailed in the interests of political expediency. One can see how frustrating it must be for those who have worked on a sporting bid for years. But that is precisely why is so important to have an independent press and media.

Last week, a 'production order' was served on the Guardian requiring them – and specifically Amelia – to disclose the source of the story that one of those phones hacked by The News of the World and its agents was that of murdered teenager Milly Dowler. It was this that turned phone-hacking into a full-blown crisis for News Corporation.

This production order is part of a wider, and in my view disturbing trend, for police forces in many parts of the UK routinely to demand that journalists disclose sources and hand over journalistic materials. At the BBC, we receive an ever-growing number of demands for untransmitted news rushes which the police seem to regard as having no more privilege or protection attached to them than CCTV pictures. But the Metropolitan Police's production order went further and sought to use the UK's Official Secrets Act – normally invoked only in serious matters of national security – to impel Amelia and the Guardian to divulge their source. The Met claimed that they continued to respect the rights of whistleblowers and the principle of public interest justification for journalism but – astonishingly – said that neither applied in this case.

I can think of no better example of a journalistic disclosure being in the public interest than the Milly Dowler story in the Guardian. That anyone in the Metropolitan Police should ever have thought otherwise is not only incomprehensible but disturbing. Five days ago, amid pretty much universal condemnation, the Met withdrew their application and said they accepted that the attempt to invoke the Official Secrets Act was wrong. Good – but again the fact that anyone in the police should ever have thought it was appropriate in the first place is very troubling.

Like politicians, the police often find themselves with a conflict of interest when weighing the independence of the media with their own priorities as they conduct investigations. Sometimes that conflict leads to faulty – and dangerous – actions.

Conclusion

This is a dangerous period for British journalism. It would be easy to respond to the completely unacceptable actions of some journalists at The News of the World by adopting such a draconian approach that even the best journalism is constrained. It would be easy for concern over the appalling invasions of privacy revealed by the phone-hacking scandal to spill over into legislation or regulation which enables wrong-doers to escape journalistic exposure.

The Leveson Inquiry and everyone involved in deciding how to respond to events at The News of the World have an unenviable tightrope to walk.

It won't just be British journalists who watch developments but editors and reporters all over the world. Some of the issues I've talked about are unique to the UK and the British press. But many of the themes – the boundaries of public interest, privacy versus the right to disclose, the complex relationship between journalism and those in power – are, I think, universal ones. Governments and regulators will be watching what happens in Britain with great interest.

I began with a BBC programme about the origins of investigative journalism in the BBC itself, and I emphasised the naïve idealism of the protagonists, their belief in a journalism that can make a positive difference in the world. What British journalism needs more than anything else, more than any kind of reform, is a return to that idealism and that belief.

Thank you.