Wikileaks – a Watergate moment?

Are we witnessing a rebirth of investigative journalism, thanks to an armoury of new (web-based) weapons? Is the Wikileaks phenomenon the equivalent, for young journalists, of the Watergate investigation which inspired a previous generation (including the writer of this blog)?

Armed and victorious – St Michael at Coventry Cathedral

‘Learn to hold a sword before you put on the armour of an investigative journalist’, that was the advice from the former editor of the Sunday Times, Harold Evans, in an interview recorded for a conference this week. His recommendation, to ‘become a reporter first’, represented one side of the discussion at Coventry University, about whether investigative journalism was dead or alive.

Evans was editor of the Sunday Times when its Insight team was at its strongest in the ’60s and ’70s . One of the team’s leading members, Phillip Knightley (in another interview for the conference) emphasised that people are at the heart of investigative journalism. He recalled that when researching the Thalidomide scandal, which had left babies severely deformed, he held one of them in his arms. ‘I became furious, enraged and empowered by direct contact with a Thalidomide child.’

The stress on the human element of investigative journalism was set against a possible fascination with the new tools available in the 21st century – and the audience-driven demands of television (spelled out by Eamonn Matthews).

Barnie Choudhury described how he had spent huge amounts of time getting to know people who could tell him what was really going on in Asian communities when he was investigating so-called ‘honour killings’. And he stressed the importance of a sceptical attitude: ‘If your source is God, question it!’

The legendary Bob Woodward of Watergate fame (again interviewed in advance) agreed that sources are one of the three essentials for an investigative journalist, along with documents and a willingness to get out of the office.

The Guardian’s David Leigh, who’s been at the heart of the reporting of the Wikileaks cables, joined the conference via Skype and emphasised the critical contribution of the journalist. ‘Dumping raw and random documents on the web does not change the world. What makes a difference is analysing them and making sense of them.’

Making sense of the vast amounts of data now being dumped on the public (by the British government among others), certainly requires new skills and tools. Paul Lashmar described a range of web-based resources, including Cablesearch which facilitates searching of the Wikileaks cables and Datatracker which makes it possible ‘for investigators to find resources, share information, and learn new “tricks of the trade”.’ He believes Wikileaks has given new energy to investigative journalism. Challenged on whether this really was investigative journalism, he replied: ‘It’s information we can do something with.’

It was a trio of journalism students from Lincoln University who introduced the participants to many of the latest weapons available, including Scraperwiki a tool ‘for journalists, activists and the general public who want to discover and re-use interesting, useful data’ and Wordle which displays data patterns in a highly visual way.

What are the constraints on the use of new media? The students’ suggestion that they could easily ‘lurk’ on Facebook by adopting fake identities in order to infiltrate target organisations provoked an interesting and heated discussion about the application of journalistic ethics to such new opportunities. If it’s unethical (not to say illegal) to hack into people’s phones, can it be justified to invade their privacy on the web?

The answer to that ethical question would have to involve the ‘public interest’, which was at the heart of the opening remarks from Kevin Marsh of the BBC College of Journalism, who chaired the event. ‘Investigative journalism is at the heart of journalism; it is journalism at its most useful to the public.’

Many of the contributions to the conference can be seen on the College of Journalism’s website.

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About James Stewart

Senior Lecturer in Radio Journalism.
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