What is the role of investigative journalism?

In late July, Frontline Club launched a survey prompted by the fallout of the ongoing phone hacking scandal. The full results have now been published, and can be found here.

As part of the survey, we asked people to tell us what they thought was the role of investigative journalism.

The excellent responses, a cross section of which can be found below, cover a lot of ground. One of the most notable and recurring points made was that investigative journalism’s function is to expose wrongdoing and corruption – not to dig up salacious celebrity gossip stories. Many also said they felt investigative reporting has suffered because it lacks profitability and eats up resources, and that the phone hacking scandal has illustrated both the best and the worst of contemporary journalism.

The question we posed was: What function do you believe investigative journalism serves for society? What should be its purpose, and why?


• To watch the watchers and expose wrongdoing and hypocrisy.

• Investigative journalism should call the powerful to account, and expose corruption. It is important in any democracy. It has nothing to do with prying into the private lives of celebrities – that’s a separate matter. Journalists may need some subterfuge to carry it out, but this is not the same as hacking into the telephones of celebrities to get gossip.

• It’s supposed to give the public a ‘heads up" about certain people who are not obeying the law. They are usually getting financially rewarded to the detriment of tax payers. Private Eye has pages of them and rarely do the national papers do any work on these stories.

• Journalism can hold individuals and institutions accountable in the way that elections every five years or AGMs do not. Its purpose should be to uncover that which others might wish to remain hidden. Preferably issues that affect society, not the issue of which slapper [Ryan] Giggs is shagging.

• The hacking scandal has revealed the worst and the best of journalism. The worst being hacking, bribery and collusion, the best being the investigative journalism of the Guardian (and NYTimes though I haven’t read those articles). The Guardian‘s relentless work on this subject is an example of what investigative journalism can achieve without illegal means. Its purpose should be to reveal matters of public and national interest, to reveal wrong-doing and to unfair treatment of the weak or marginalised in society.

• Its function is to reveal the truth, to root out facts many people often want to keep hidden, to re-establish fairness, to shine light in dark places. Good investigative journalism is journalism’s strongest suit.

• Investigative journalism should be able to uncover the truth and not be selective in its revelations. It should not be tainted by people and/or organisations that do not want the truth revealed.

• To bring to our attention stuff that matters. To uncover that which people in power would like to keep secret for their own gain and the detriment of society.

• It should concentrate on exposing corruption, exploitation, illegal practices that are harmful to individuals or society, etc. Investigative journalism shouldn’t be used, as it so often is now, to find out sensational and salacious gossip about celebrities and victims of tragedies. It should be used in the public interest, not for things that are merely of interest to the public, as I think Hugh Grant put it.

• Investigative journalism firstly diverts resources and expertise into unmasking potential abuses of power and/or developments that stand to significantly impact on the life of a proportion of society, or at the very least creates a system of monitoring powerful interests that may check abuses of power with such outcomes. This is an extension of the liberal democratic/enlightenment ideal of limiting power and influence, as an informal check on the illegal or questionable activities of resourced actors Secondly, it should also draw attention to passive shortcomings in public policy that affect the public. This is a guardianship role, where laws, regulations, and the operation of significant public and private bodies are scrutinised for effectiveness and for their fulfilment of the public good.

• It should serve as a check and balance against power hungry corporations and government. It should inform the public rather than sensationalise. There appears to be little investigative journalism these days as it is not profitable. Please do not let the UK follow in the footsteps of US and Australian media – tabloid news rather than unbiased reporting. Give me facts and links so that I can read further.

• Investigative journalism provides truth about people from government and other entities such as corporations who attempt to keep their often illegal activities secret. Its purpose is expose such actions so that those involved can be held accountable.

• Investigative journalism simply does in a more detailed and comprehensive way what all journalism should do, namely act as a watchdog in the public interest. In particular, it must expose abuses of power wherever it finds them – and these days these are to be found as much in the corporate sector as in the state sector. Very sadly, some of the worst offenders in this respect are newspapers themselves.

Frontline Club would like to thank all those who took the time to participate. To view the full results of our phone hacking survey, click here.