openDemocracy: ‘Investigative Comment and the future of journalism on the web’

Today journalist and author Clare Sambrook won the Bevins Prize for Investigative Journalism 2010 and was presented with the Rat Up a Drainpipe trophy, for her reports on the website openDemocracy and its UK section, OurKingdom.

Last week she won the 2010 Paul Foot Award for campaigning journalism and its £5,000 prize. This is the first time a web journalist has won either award.

Anthony Barnett has written about her journalistic approach on openDemocracy, copied below, under the terms of the Creative Commons licence.

By Anthony Barnett, founder of openDemocracy and the co-editor of its UK section, Our Kingdom. 9 November 2010:

Clare Sambrook has just won the Bevins Prize for Investigative Journalism, as well as scooping up the Paul Foot Award last week, both of them for her stories exposing the scandal of child detention in Britain. It is a terrific recognition of her and her team of unpaid fellow campaigners at End Child Detention Now. openDemocracy is proud of being her main publisher, in our UK section OurKingdom. Her reports are listed here.

It is the first time that either award has gone to journalism primarily published on the web. The changing balance between the new and mainstream media, much chattered about, is now becoming real. In the process the nature of journalism is being changed. For the better.

We have heard a lot of complaints about the downside, the supposed lowering of standards as superficial, vitriolic comments fill the blogosphere. But even if the internet does give voice to the “swinish multitude” it is opening up the public realm to well-researched demands for honesty and integrity.

Clare’s kind of active reporting is changing journalism in two respects. Hitherto a shibboleth of the journalist profession has been the separation of fact and comment. Clare does not do this. In her words, what she does is “investigative comment”. She says, “If we respect the reader, then all journalism ought to be investigative — probing, curious, digging —except where it is plainly reporting what happened, such as a match report or a court report.”

She also queries the point of pure comment, “Unless the analysis is brilliant and revelatory, why should readers bother to read someone who hasn’t troubled to find anything out, something that’s only opinion?” She adds “when the government explicitly works to take control of the narrative, it’s bonkers to demand that investigative work should be ‘fair and balanced’.”

This is a crucial point. We live in a world where, as Mike Edwards reports, vested interests seek to “dominate the entire intellectual environment”. In the face of this, neutrality becomes a way of playing their game or at least accepting such domination.

Independent journalism challenges official control of the narrative. Investigative comment does not hide the advocacy motivating its research. On the contrary, its own arguments are tested by the facts it reports. I would argue that this makes it more transparent – OK, I mean more honest – both as to its use of facts and the way it presents arguments, than most official journalism.

This also distinguishes it from the special pleading of many campaigns and NGOs.

But ‘investigative comment’ is not new or a just web phenomenon. It dates back at least to William Cobbett. Today, in the Observer, Henry Porter has demonstrated the effectiveness of investigative comment. When Heather Brooke asked about MPs’ expenses and wanted the actual receipts under the new Freedom of Information Act, she was simply doing research for a book on the right to know. But, as she says, “if you are at all interested in power, access to information is the key” (Silent State, p226).

Her advocacy and comment about freedom of information was factually driven. As such, it changed our parliamentary culture for good.

The Guardian’s father figure, J.P Scott famously argued that “facts are sacred”. So much so, indeed, that they are locked away. Our role should be to expose them, publicise them, deconsecrate them and make the truth ordinary.

To achieve this you need a point of view – or, at the very least, a suspicion and a purpose.

The web is a natural home of such ‘investigative comment’. But it also needs a culture of how to publish such material in a way that is itself open to counter-challenge. Otherwise such a self-declared approach can easily become another vehicle for authoritarian or populist agendas.

This is where openDemocracy comes in, as now perhaps Britain’s oldest web publication. I report on how openDemocracy survived, in a response to Alan Rusbridger’s draft lecture on the media and the web. As Tony Curzon Price, its Editor in Chief has argued, oD is distinct in having ‘openness’ as its operating principle.

Openness is different from neutrality or balance. openDemocracy does not ask its contributors to be neutral or seek an impossible ‘balance’ in their coverage. Instead, it looks for an engaged, well-argued case, based on information that is open to rebuttal, disagreement and a counter-case, should one be offered.

This is why I was delighted when I read the first piece by Clare, when it arrived in my inbox. I had learnt of the scandal of child detention in 2008 when I saw Juliet Stevenson and Natasha Walter’s play Motherland, which I reviewed in the Guardian online and blogged in OK. I learnt, for example, that Labour amended its own Children’s Act to ensure that its safeguards did not apply to kids in prison as asylum seekers, which means the government knew what was going on.

It is one thing to learn about a scandal. It is quite another to do the reporting that keeps the story up to date, against all official pressures and obstacles. Clare, helped by her colleagues, set about it in clear, compelling prose. If they were wrong they could be challenged. It was not the kind of comment that fits into an ‘op ed’ page. Clare wasn’t well known. Her reporting was urgent and argued, which ruled it out for the news pages. These three disqualifications from the point of view of the mainstream media were all positives for our website.

As I’m arguing for a development of the best of traditional journalism, not an opposition, I’ll end with a quote from Judith Townend who did a lot of the online publicity for End Child Detention Now, “So many journalists still have this ‘blogger vs journalist’ thing in their heads. We should push them past that. It’s not one or the other; it’s about communicating the story and the message…”

Creative Commons

This article was first published by Anthony Barnett on openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence.  It is re-published here, on jtownend.com, under the terms of the CC licence.


One comment

  1. Pingback: JTownend » Beyond the future of journalism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s