For proper journalism

PROBABLY every journalist would prefer to be an "investigative journalist". But what's one of them? And why is as rare, as an actual job title, as a "bird dentist"? The December London Freelance Branch meeting heard from Laurie Flynn of the Guardian and late of World in Action. And the wonders of our mailing schedule mean that only now we can bring you this report...

Laurie Flynn said that there is still a residual aura around investigative journalists since Woodward and Bernstein's groundbreaking Watergate revelations. (For younger readers: they caused the 1974 resignation of Richard Nixon, who was a US President.)

How "investigative" differs from other kinds of journalism is difficult to quantify, he said. It is easier to define by what it is not. It should not be "disrespectful and parasitical" of other journalist's work and contacts. While "not undervaluing the strengths of our journalistic culture," Laurie said that what passes for investigative journalism is very often "post-mortem journalism" - analysing an horrific event, reactively rather than pro-actively - a "very sad state of affairs".

Any reporter can probe - but in reality, you must often find time to do deep research unpaid. It is necessary to go against the grain, "refuse the corruption of the marketplace" and stand up to powerful forces. The free flow of accurate information is in the public interest, it increases the "humanness" of society.

He gave as a model the Sunday Times Insight team under Harold Evans: an inner core of staff working collaboratively, given enough time to develop stories and with specialist journalists - freelances - drafted in to deal with complexities. Investigative journalism must mean clarifying basic issues and questioning received wisdom. The narrative needs to be humane and accessible; the photographs personal, more than just stock shots.

How to get necessarily controversial material into print or on screen? "Bomb-proof your work," he said, and "understand the intricacies,". Media organisations need sympathetic, specialist lawyers and owners prepared to back "accusatory, controversial journalism". Unfortunately, recent history has seen too many cowardly owners hiring generic play-it-safe lawyers.

Flynn was asked how he copes with the "outrage" generated by dealing with those damaged by "merciless" commercial interests. It is vital, he replied, to have ways of dealing with stress to avoid burnout and drug dependency (sadly not uncommon). Sometimes he escapes to his native Scotland to avoid the "private affluence and public squalor" of London; putting off a recent holiday had proved a false economy. Also, it helps that he works "collegiately" (as an "odd couple") with journalistic partner Michael Shaun-Gillard.

It is important to understand the motivations of the powerful, he said, "to move among them, disarm them, look them in the eye". Persistence, good manners and appealing to an individual's desire to do the right thing works across the board.

This was one of the most impassioned and warmly received recent talks at recent branch meetings. A longer event on investigative journalism is now being planned.

Last modified: 19 February 2001 - © 2001 contributors
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