Who will ‘attack the devil’ when the presses fall silent? Ian Wylie reports. Illustration by Alan Vest
As a man who worked long and unusual hours, he probably saw more of Darlington’s sex trade than most. Yet one late night in 1879, on the way home from his Priestgate offices, William Thomas Stead’s diary entry records his surprise when he met a woman sobbing that “a scoundrel had attempted to outrage her”. Stead offered to walk her home, but “before we got there she calmly proposed that I should complete the offense and I discovered that my desolate damsel was a common prostitute!”
Naive maybe, but Stead was about to embark on his first act of investigative journalism: exposing the trade in young girls. The Northern Echo, England’s first halfpenny morning paper, comprised just four pages, two of which were given over to advertisements. But this lack of space didn’t stop Stead – its editor at the age of just 22 – from using the paper to rail against the rich men who paid for sex with someone else’s daughter. He campaigned too for a repeal of the demeaning Contagious Diseases Acts that allowed police officers to arrest women suspected of being prostitutes in ports and army towns.
Stead later managed to inflame his north east readers with fury about the slaughter of thousands of civilians in faraway Bulgaria, gaining the admiration of prime minister W.E. Gladstone and Oxford historian E. A. Freeman who declared The Northern Echo “the best paper in Europe”.
W.T. Stead was an early pioneer of investigative, campaigning journalism, demonstrating how the reporting of a local newspaper could influence public opinion and government policy, hold those in power to account and challenge those who abused their position. Stead described it as “a glorious opportunity of attacking the devil”.
For decades, the craft of local, investigative reporting has continued, practised largely by regional newspapers like The Northern Echo. In their heyday, with several hundred journalists on staff, newspapers gladly invested in the painstaking, time-consuming and unglamorous reporting that often lead to breakthrough stories.
In the 1960s, in Stead’s place, Echo editor Harold Evans campaigned successfully for a national programme for the detection of cervical cancer, against air pollution on Teesside and for a pardon for Timothy Evans, a lorry driver hanged for murder but guilty of little more than sharing a house with serial killer John Christie.
Peter Barron, who recently stepped down as Echo editor, recounts how in 1999 he watched his friend, Ian Weir, declared dead by paramedics in his Darlington home, after waiting nearly eight months for a triple bypass. An investigation by the Echo found that UK heart patients often waited 18 months for lifesaving bypass surgery, compared to three months elsewhere in Europe. The Echo’s campaign pressured prime minister Tony Blair and health secretary Alan Milburn to cut average waiting times from 18 months to 18 weeks.
Those were the days when politicians, council leaders and police chiefs feared the 5pm call from a newspaper editor: “We’re just about to run this story. Do you wish to comment?”
Some of that local investigative and campaigning journalism continues. How would we know, for example, that almost 400 youngsters in the region are at risk of being groomed for sex, unless an Echo investigation had recently revealed it? Would the public have ever seen confidential documents alleging that Cleveland Police buried an accusation of historic child abuse made against the then chair of Cleveland Police Authority, if Echo reporters had not spent a year investigating it?
But the days when newspapers shifted public opinion, influenced policy and decided elections are almost gone.
Ignored by politicians, banned by football clubs, forsaken by readers and advertisers, most local and regional newspapers are dying, reduced to little more than desperate, hollowed-out vehicles for advertising, clinging to life through sponsored content on their pages and click-bait list-features on their websites.
When Harold Evans left for London to edit The Sunday Times, the Echo had a daily readership of 114,000. Today? Just 25,000 and falling at a rate of almost 10% per annum. And the ability of local newspapers to hold local leaders to account is suffering as a result.
Whether the subject matter is thalidomide, paedophile priests or bypass waiting times, effective investigations share several ingredients: a journalist with driving curiosity; an editor willing to grant the journalist time and licence to roam; and a newspaper owner who is prepared to pay the bills.
Barron recalls how his health editor, Barry Nelson, spent a year focusing almost exclusively on that heart bypass campaign. Harold Evans dispatched his health editor to Canada for six weeks, just to do research for the Echo’s cervical cancer campaign.
But the ambition, time and money that made such local journalism possible are evaporating. When Barry Nelson was made redundant by the Echo, his role was not replaced. In 1999 there were more than 100 journalists in the Echo newsroom – now, there are around 50.
In the newspapers of Harold Evans’ day, the editor was king. Today, what little power is left in local newspapers lies with the advertising executives, not the journalists. The salary of an experienced, specialist reporter is viewed as an unnecessary cost. Few of the journalists who remain are engaged in critical or investigative reporting and the chief executives of newspaper groups have no appetite for disrupting the local business and political powers on which they depend to keep the lights on. Besides, investigative journalism is expensive, and doesn’t guarantee clicks. According to Guardian editor Kath Viner, the chasing of cheap clicks at the expense of accuracy and veracity means newspapers and other news organisations “undermine the very reason they exist: to find things out and tell readers the truth – to report, report, report”.
There will be last-ditch deals to share content and merge newsrooms. But the lights on our north east newspapers – the Echos, Journals, Chronicles and Gazettes – won’t stay on for long, destined to join the 300 local newspapers around the country that have closed in the last decade.
And truth be told, they won’t be mourned by many other than those they paid a salary: reporters, editors, sub-editors, proof readers, compositors, type-setters… consigned to the history books with the miners and shipbuilders. Like the libraries, pubs and post offices before them, newspaper offices in towns and cities will find new uses as coffee shops, estate agents or tattoo parlours.
There will be no Change.org campaigns to keep them open as “community assets”. They upset too many people for that. The obituaries for Maurice O’Neill, the editor of The Ballymena Guardian who gave me my first taste of newspapers, described him as a “tough but fair taskmaster”. His knowledge of the town was second to none, but I remember him as a grumpy curmudgeon. They may have been fixtures and fittings of the community, but local newspapers have rarely been loved.
Few tears will be shed at their passing by politicians, council leaders or police chiefs, contented observers of the diminishing power of “mainstream media”. Today, the “power of the media” rests not with press barons or newspaper moguls, but with the tech mavens of the west coast (of the U.S.), who act as editors, setting our daily news agenda, filtering what “content” we see. With 1.6bn users, Facebook has become the dominant way for people to find news, connecting us with the wider world, while disconnecting us with the locality around us.
Perhaps that’s unfair. Facebook is as good a forum for the sharing of local community events, photographs and memories as local newspapers. Twitter is an effective, quick-fire debate chamber for local issues. Google algorithms mean we can get information about a local business faster than we can find it in a local newspaper.
But when it comes to telling us how our towns and cities are being run or policed, social media lacks the local knowledge. Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan, who was imprisoned in Tehran for six years for his online activity, describes it as “the centralisation of information” inside a select few social networks – and the end result is “making us all less powerful in relation to government and corporations”.
Newspapers were muck-raking innovators, so it’s little surprise they excelled in holding the powerful to account. In cities and regions where there were two or more papers – not to mention local BBC radio, then TV – they competed to produce the best scoops.
The habit local papers developed for publishing the mundane and banal was important in its own right, but the reporting of courts and council meetings also built a systematic structure for grassroots information gathering, a foundation on which investigations could be launched, directing noses to be poked where they weren’t wanted. No, newspapers no longer have the staff to examine the agenda of each council meeting, let alone attend them. “Plenty of councils are looking forward to the demise of local newspapers because they hold them to account. They see them as a pain in the arse,” says Peter Barron. “There are certainly councils that would love to see the back of The Northern Echo.”
Yet as parts of Britain, including our own, consider more devolved powers, the dearth of local news reporting is creating what BBC news chief James Harding describes as a “democratic deficit”.
It’s not just at a local level that investigative journalism is under pressure. The Guardian, which won awards for Snowden and Wikileaks exposés, is dismantling its six-strong investigations team. Broadcasters too are on the retreat, says Meirion Jones, a former BBC producer who won awards for his investigation into the dumping of toxic waste and for his part in the Jimmy Savile revelations. “There’s a stepping back in TV from investigative journalism. It’s much easier to commission programmes, like The Great British Bake Off, which you know are going to deliver results, whereas an investigation might get you nothing.”
While the internet may have killed local newspapers, it has opened up new possibilities for investigative reporting. Anya Schiffrin – author of Global Muckraking, a 125-year history of investigative, campaigning journalism – believes there is more sophisticated and in-depth reporting being undertaken than ever before. Putting technology in the hands of citizens gives anyone with a smartphone the power to expose human rights abuse. Access to databases and number crunching tools help reporters do more in-depth work. The internet enables new players to emerge – nonprofit hyperlocals, digital start-ups, university-based centres – and to collaborate.
Meirion Jones’s new employer is the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Thanks to a £520,000 grant from Google, the Bureau is creating a data lab that will be repository for all kinds of local statistics and information from councils, police forces – it has just run a trial on the reporting of hate crime – and other public bodies across the country. That data will then be made available to journalists and others to search and mine for stories that call local leaders to account.
In this new age of investigative journalism, different types of stories are being reported too, explains Rachel Hamada, a co-founder of The Ferret, an Edinburgh website set up by freelance journalists that asks its subscribers to vote for, and crowd-fund, investigations into the issues which matter most to them. “With newspapers, certain themes get revisited time and time again, while others, such as mental health or women’s rights, are often ignored,” says Hamada. For example, The Ferret recently published a package of stories on domestic violence against asylum-seeking women. “That would never have been commissioned by a newspaper,” she says.
Philanthropists and foundations are stepping forward, willing to support some of these new projects. Some, like the Centre for Investigative Journalism, have a mission to train the next generation of muckrakers. An exciting future for investigative journalism lies ahead, but there are concerns.
Funding sometimes comes with strings attached, from parties with axes to grind or with vested interests that may not always be in the public interest. While citizens who haven’t been trained as journalists can, in the words of media commentator Jeff Jarvis, “perform acts of journalism”, some journalistic skill and experience is required to analyse, find patterns and trends, then build and communicate a balanced story. “We are receiving more information than ever before, but it still requires a journalist’s eye,” says Barron.
As databases and spreadsheets replace contacts and notebooks, there is a danger, agrees Meirion Jones, that human information is being underrated. And while thematic, crowd-led journalism will shine the light on important national or even global issues, it is less likely to resource the kind of local stories that have emerged from grassroots reporting. Like the story of Alex Walker, an 11-year-old who wrote the same word in his school diary against every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday morning: “Sad.”
Alex suffers from severe dyslexia, which has restricted his learning to such an extent that experts say he currently has the reading and writing age of a five to six year-old. His mum, Julie, wanted him to receive specialist teaching from a school that had strong results with children with dyslexia. But Birmingham City Council had refused to even consider sending Alex to that school, which would have cost the council £13,000 per year. So what did Julie do? She asked her local newspaper, The Birmingham Mail to investigate. Within 48 hours, the council had relented. “It’s only local newspapers that find a place for these kinds of stories,” reckons Jeanette Oldham, the Mail’s investigations editor, whose most recent award-winning investigations have included council cover-ups of links between Asian cabbies and child sex victims, a cancer surgeon with unacceptably high death rates, and the alleged Trojan horse plot to impose radical ideas in Birmingham schools.
Oldham’s modus operandi has changed little in 20 years, relying on contacts and conversations rather than Google searches and social media. “I rely on my contacts, people I’ve encountered and with whom I’ve developed a professional relationship over a long period of time. They’re people who tend to not speak to other journalists. They’re not whistleblowers, not the kind of people who would give up a job to blow the lid. But over time they share things which they don’t think are right. And like me, they feel passionately about the public’s right to know the information that is being withheld, about what is being done in our name with our money and, supposedly, for our benefit.”
Perhaps the privately-funded investigative role played by local and regional newspapers for the last century has been an anomaly. When newspapers disappear, one option that will have to be considered will be the state funding of local reporting, as a means of reducing the “democratic deficit”. Research suggests that when a local newspaper closes, fewer people vote in subsequent elections, fewer candidates run in opposition to the incumbents and so incumbents have a better chance of being re-elected.
State subsidy would be unpopular and problematic, not least with journalists themselves. Jeanette Oldham is not in favour of government funding, yet concedes that plenty of public money is being invested in press offices and corporate communications. “Police forces, councils, the NHS and others are investing huge sums to create an image of themselves that isn’t the reality,” she says.
“There seems to be more press officers at the same time as there are fewer journalists like me to challenge and hold them to account.”
Government must also consider the impact on local journalists of measures like the proposed investigatory powers bill, which would place reporters’ sources and whistleblowers at risk. Police forces have already used the bill’s predecessor, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, to access the phone records of reporters at The Northern Echo and other newspapers.
Journalists make as many foes as friends, but even the enemies of investigative reporters occasionally acknowledge their value. When asked his opinion, Thomas Jefferson, a man vilified by newspapers on a daily basis, replied: “If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.”
There will be a new chapter for hard-driving, investigative reporting after the newspapers have gone. The story of local, hard-hitting, policy-changing stories is unfinished. But we need help to write it.
This essay was commissioned for the Durham Book Festival
Read more in The Northern Correspondent #9