Bureau of Investigative Journalism celebrates first birthday

Pewari Naan (Flickr)

Case study by Alex Klaushofer.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the not-for-profit organisation established to help reverse the decline of investigative journalism in Britain, celebrates its first birthday today.

Launched on 26th April 2010 thanks to a £2 million grant from the Potter foundation, the organisation espouses an unashamedly non-commercial funding model, conducting the kind of in-depth investigations done less and less by the mainstream media.

A year on, with monthly installments of the grant supplemented by commission fees from sales to print and broadcast media, the Bureau is in a position to continue for up to five years without a major change in fortunes.

The arrangement funds four core staff, a dozen people on short-term contracts and a number of paid internships. Journalists work in topic-based teams covering issues such as Health, Human Rights and the European Union; recent stories include the revelation of widespread malpractice among big pharmaceutical companies operating in the US and, in partnership with the Financial Times, the discovery that tobacco companies have received public funds to the tune of three million euro. The scope of investigations is admittedly limited – many of the Bureau’s stories are done in partnership with other media organisations.

According to Bureau editor Iain Overton, the biggest challenge so far has been persuading media outlets to publish the fruits of the investigations. ‘The problem I have is not so much doing the journalism; it’s selling it,’ he says. ‘It’s a very easy thing to say that the reason investigative journalism is declining is because nasty people like Murdoch are holding the purse strings. I think it’s more complicated than that.’

Instead, he identifies a variety of factors that make for a climate hostile to investigative journalism: editors are reluctant to publish material considered too dry or complex to woo consumers fed on a diet of sensationalism, governments and companies try to bury bad news with bureaucratic language and cunning PR tactics, and journalists are increasingly tied to their desks.

The problem affects even with the most newsworthy material, such as the Bureau’s publication, in November 2010, of a story based on WikiLeaks Iraq War Logs about the killing of hundreds of civilians in Iraq by coalition forces, along with continuing prison abuse, post-Abu Ghraib, and widespread torture in Iraqi detention facilities.

The Bureau’s response to the problem has been pragmatic, prioritising the need to get the story out and offering material which can’t be placed free to anyone who wants it under a creative commons license. Overton rejects suggestions that giving away stories contributes to the problem of producing good, sustainable journalism which the Bureau was designed to remedy, arguing that material is sold wherever possible. ‘I’m subsidising,’ he admits. ‘I do get the market rates for print and broadcast stories, but they’re insufficient.’

He does, however, foresee the gradual evolution of a more commercial model to fund investigative journalism through the sale of access to documentaries on internet TV. ‘Over time the saviour of quality investigative journalism may be micro payments,’ he says. ‘People will gradually realise that you can’t always get quality journalism for free.’

‘It may take ten years, though,’ he adds.

In the meantime, the Bureau is adopting the strategy pursued by many media players in the digital age – building its reputation in the hope that the money will follow.