In My Opinion: Billy Briggs: Investigative journalism in Scotland

IN November this year, some of Scotland’s top journalists will gather in Edinburgh for a conference on investigative journalism.

Keynote speakers will include Paul Hutcheon, investigations editor at the Sunday Herald and Journalist of the Year at the Scottish Press Awards, and Nicole Kleeman, founder of award-winning Firecrest Films in Glasgow, which makes programmes for Channel 4’s Dispatches and the BBC’s Panorama, among others.

The Autumnal event has been organized by Bauer Academy with the aim of promoting public interest journalism in Scotland and also raising money to support a freelance investigative project.

There will be talks on data journalism, freedom of information and protecting whistleblowers, and delegates will learn from experts on how to investigate terrorists, war crimes, international human rights abuses, politics and the world of finance.

The event comes at a time when the press continues to struggle financially and there are dwindling resources to hold power to account.

The notion for a Scottish conference came last year after I attended an event in London where journalistic doyens, Seymour Hersh and David Leigh, gave lectures. Hersh – a veteran American reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize – talked about exposing the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, while Leigh spoke about his investigations for The Guardian.

What struck a chord most though was Leigh’s mention of the time involved in The Guardian’s recent Pulitzer Prize-winning work. Leigh said it took a dedicated team some eight months to unearth the story, which brought the following question to mind, ‘Could the Scottish media do likewise?’

Well, the short answer to that, sadly, is ‘no’ because currently there is not the money available for such an exhaustive journalistic venture.

The talent is available and publications such as the Sunday Mail, Sunday Herald and The Digger all regularly produce powerful investigations but, generally, there is a dearth of investigative journalism which must be urgently addressed for the sake of democracy.

Cutbacks in newsrooms mean fewer investigative reporters resulting in less scrutiny of the public bodies we all pay for including parliament, councils, the NHS, quangos, police and the judiciary – ergo, the likelihood of further abuses of power, miscarriages of justice and millions of pounds of tax payers’ cash being wasted.

The reality is that investigations are often complex, time-consuming and costly. It is increasingly difficult for a freelancer to make a living as an investigative reporter. For example, I spent eight full days on an investigation with another reporter recently and a national newspaper offered us just £200 for our efforts. The situation is grim and if rates continue to fall – some media are paying freelancers 50 per cent less than they did a decade ago – then experienced journalists will be forced out of the industry.

So, what can be done? One potential solution, as argued recently by political commentator, Iain Macwhirter, could be state funding to support Scotland’s indigenous Press but that controversial route seems some way off.

Meanwhile, there have been successful investigative projects launched elsewhere in the UK. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in London, is one such example, a not-for-profit organisation funded by a charity called the Potter Foundation.

Exaro is another London-based investigative unit and in Northern Ireland a website called The Detail conducts public interest investigations on the back of funding from Atlantic Philanthropies and Northern Ireland Screen.

There is now similar innovation in Scotland with the onset of the Scottish Inquirer, the nation’s first online publication dedicated to investigative journalism. The Scottish Inquirer will be officially launched after the independence referendum but its website will be up soon thanks to the help of a group of experienced and committed journalists who are working on the project pro-bono.

Scottish Inquirer was the brainchild of freelance journalist, Peter Geoghegan, who will also be speaking at Bauer Academy’s November conference – so please sign up and support investigative journalism in Scotland.

For more information on Bauer Academy’s Investigative Journalism conference, please visit – www.baueracademy.co.uk/courses/investigative-journalism/

Billy Briggs is a freelance journalist.