Investigative journalism: my testimony to the Lords' select committee

There’s been some reporting of my appearance at the House of Lords select committee looking into the state of investigative journalism. Here’s a fuller extract of what I said than the reports had room for. As I made clear at the beginning of my evidence, these are my personal views, and not those of the Telegraph corporately.

Q: Do I detect that you would regard exposes of the private lives of Premier League footballers as not investigative journalism?

A: I’m not even interested in Hugh Grant’s films, let alone his private life…. That’s not a public interest [matter]. I think the danger, I know lots of people will have said this, but the danger is that the behaviour of some [journalists] tarnishes the behaviour of all, and the vast majority of journalists don’t do the kind of revolting things that we’ve heard people at the Leveson inquiry describing this week.

Q: Are the things they did revolting per se, or is it only the objective they were seeking to expose that made them revolting?

A: You can probably justify, I think, some controversial behaviour as a journalist. I myself, as I’ve written in print in the paper at the time the scandal broke, I have for instance deceived people. I’ve used subterfuge. I’ve invaded people’s privacy [by, for instance, the undercover filming of Islamic extremists in East London]. I’ve received leaked emails which Ken Livingstone claimed were stolen goods.

(Interruption for vote of the House)

The difference between me and the News of the World is that those kinds of things are done rarely, they’re done with great consideration at an editorial level, and they’re done on stories of genuine public interest. And the public interest has to be proportionate to the amount of intrusion or whatever being contemplated.

So it’s arguably permissible to for instance deceive, as I have done, an arms manufacturer who is offering to sell illegal landmines. It’s not proportionate to, for instance, send private detectives to follow Richard Madeley around to see if he does anything newsworthy. [Investigative journalists] don’t do fishing expeditions. We don’t do celebrity stories.

Q: And if the law of the land descends on your head, you would obviously claim morally extenuating circumstances, but would you accept that the rigour of the law might be applied?

A: Any journalist who breaks the law must expect to be held to account. But the issue then becomes how you can account for yourself. And of course in some legislation there is explicitly a public interest defence – [for example] section 55 of the Data Protection Act. In others there isn’t, but I think you would hope to convince the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] that your prosecution was not in the public interest or, a la Ponting [civil servant leaker acquitted under the Official Secrets Act], to convince a jury that your conviction was not in the public interest.

But that is what makes a strong public interest justification so important. And obviously the more controversial a practice you’re planning to conduct, the greater the public interest justification has to be….it has to be very rigorously justified in terms of the public interest.

Q: Would you like to tell us what you consider to be the main threats to, and opportunities for, investigative journalism in the foreseeable future?

A: The most important threat is official restraint, by which I mean libel and privacy law, state surveillance, and the potential threat posed by the Leveson inquiry.

Leveson’s principal task [in his terms of reference] is to recommend a “new, more effective…regulatory regime” on the press. The inquiry’s essentially decided, before it even starts work, that the current regime is not effective and needs replacing. In newspaper terms, it’s written the headline before it’s done the reporting.

What happened at the News of the World, however – outrageous as it was – was quite clearly not a failure of regulation. There already is a rather strong regulation against hacking people’s telephones – the law. It was the failure of the police to enforce the law. And the reason this scandal became so consequential is not just because of what it told us about the press, but because of what it told us about the police and politics.

And unfortunately, Leveson’s terms of reference bear much more heavily on the press than on police or politics, and I think that’s unfair. He is to make recommendations as to how we are to be regulated – in other words, how we should be forced to behave – but merely for the “future conduct” of the police and politicians. In other words, how they should merely be asked to behave.

We’ve heard a lot at the inquiry already about the issue of proportionality. I’ve spoken about it, and I think it’s an important principle in deciding how far you do a practice that might be controversial. And my concern is that the Leveson inquiry is not proportional to the problem. I don’t believe that the problems it exposes – although hideous – were the work of more than a fairly small minority of journalists. And I’m concerned that the whole of journalism is being tarnished, and may be subject to some kind of future, more onerous regulation, for the sake of the activities of a comparative few….

The strength of our democracy – and it is a strong democracy – does not lie in our democratic institutions, which are comparatively weak. It lies in our democratic culture, which is NGOs, academia, the law, and quite importantly the press. In probably the most famous story I did, the Iraq dossier story, that was a story in which all the institutions which are supposed to protect us from bad decisions failed us.

The civil service, in the person of John Scarlett, became Alastair Campbell’s co-conspirator. Parliament, in the foreign affairs select committee, became a method by which the Government hounded David Kelly and me. The judiciary, in the person of Lord Hutton, I think – and I think a lot of people agree with me – got it completely wrong. And the only estate of the realm which actually worked, the only estate of the realm which actually did its job, if belatedly and imperfectly, was the fourth estate, was journalism. It’s very, very important that nothing happens in the next few months, in a time when journalism is going to be under a great deal of scrutiny and attack, to challenge that. And I’m afraid, as I said to you before, that the forces of anti-journalism are growing, as much as the forces of journalism.


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