In My Opinion: Francis Shennan: On the issue of taking risks in pursuit of a story

TOMORROW, the BBC is scheduled to screen a Panorama report by John Sweeney, on North Korea.

It was made by the BBC team going undercover on a trip by students from the London School of Economics.

It has angered the LSE and its students’ union. No doubt North Korea too.

And this is the second time within almost as many weeks when taking risks in pursuit of a story has been an issue.

At the beginning of the month, 26 year-old Lee Halpin was found dead in a boarded-up property in Newcastle. It is reported he was three days into a video project on homelessness for which he planned to sleep rough for a week.

It was intended to form part of his application for Channel 4’s Investigative Journalism Programme. The programme says “we want to create jaw-dropping journalism” and “if you’re one of the lucky applicants, you will get a contract for up to 12 months”. In a video, Halpin talks about being “fearless” in pursuit of a story.

Some stories require taking risks, but who decides who should take them?

I have just finished teaching the Investigative Journalism module to undergraduates at Westminster University. To most of them, investigative journalism automatically means going undercover.

My classes included lectures on how to write a risk-assessment, workshops on different ways of carrying out investigations and mentoring sessions on individual stories.

One wanted to bribe a civil servant in pursuit of an allegation that he was corruptly speeding up paperwork in immigration applications. We agreed that there was not yet sufficient evidence to proceed with the attempted bribe, but to keep investigating.

Another wanted to mix with an extreme right-wing group, interviewing them about their plans for expanding in Britain. We discussed the risks and precautions she should take, and she came back – safely – with some good material.

Last year, I helped a postgraduate student to produce an expose of a recruitment scam being practised on young people, and advised on what to do when two students wanted to cover demonstrations.

But two worrying changes do appear to be taking place in tandem: an escalation in the drama and danger some stories need to attract attention and a scarcity of opportunities.

The best-selling book, Freakonomics, describes the economics of drug-dealing, showbusiness and professional sport for those trying to get into these ‘businesses’.

In each case, the rewards are pathetic except for the tiny number who make it to the top of the pile. Entrants to each sector make sacrifices in the hope of being ‘one of the few’.

I’m not opposed to taking risks but to taking uncalculated risks. The nature of the calculation may mean we have insufficient information to produce an exact answer but we should still make a calculation.

Young people tend to be enthusiastic, idealistic and ambitious, especially those going into a competitive business which holds out the prospect of glittering prizes for fewer and fewer of them.

That business has a duty to ensure they are fully equipped for it.

Francis Shennan is director of and Visiting Lecturer in journalism and law at Westminster, Stirling and Strathclyde Universities.