Ethical dilemmas in snooping and spooking


In the aftermath of one of the biggest coups brought about by investigative journalism in recent years, this autumn’s Dublin conference on the media is very timely. The coup, of course, was the Daily Telegraph’s exposé of corruption in the beautiful game. At a time when – as Fraser Nelson observed in a column in the same paper reflecting on the Telegraph’s sting – investigative journalism seemed to have taken a fatal hit from the forces of regulation, the Allardyce et al seedy revelations are effecting something of a resuscitation of the genre. The Cleraun Media Conference in Dublin, with an impressive line-up of contributors, seems to offer a great opportunity to take stock of where this sometimes nefarious, sometimes heroic, pursuit of a story is going.

“A few years ago”, Nelson observed, “Sam Allardyce might have found a little more sympathy for his complaint about having fallen victim to ‘entrapment’. When the Leveson Inquiry was in full swing, and newspapers were the subject of the Metropolitan Police’s largest-ever criminal investigation, journalism itself was in the dock. Politicians and celebrities whose indiscretions had once made front-page news – Hugh Grant, John Prescott, Max Mosley – were in full pursuit of their former tormentors. There seemed to be a new consensus: that the nosy press had gone too far and it was time to bring it under democratic (ie political) control.”

Nelson admits that Allardyce certainly was the victim of a sting, but one that stands as a classic example of what newspapers ought to be doing – and illustrates the importance of a vibrant, investigatory and free press.

The Cleraun conference looks at the whole genre in a wider context. The full title of the conference is Investigative Journalism on the Digital Frontier: New Sources, New Tools, New Technologies, New Audiences.

This is the 16th Cleraun Media Conference, a biennial event which has been running now for 30 years. It takes place on Friday – Sunday, 11 – 13 November 2016 at Chartered Accountants House, 47-49 Pearse Street, Dublin 2.

Speakers lined up are:

Carol Leonnig, Washington Post, Pulitzer Prize Winner in 2015 and 2014.

Declan Lawn, BBC Panorama & BBC NI Spotlight.

Alys Harte, BBC 3 File on Four.

Cécile Schilis-Gallego, International Consortium of Investigative journalists.

Matt Cooke, Google News Lab UK.

Eliza Mackintosh, Storyful UK.

George Carey, British documentary-maker.

Colin Coyle, Sunday Times.

Mark Coughlan, RTÉ Prime Time.

Mark Dooley, Irish Daily Mail.

Steve Dempsey, Sunday Independent.

Seán McCárthaigh, The Times.

Philip Gallagher, documentary director and producer.

Gerard O’Neill, Amárach Research.

Suzanne Kennedy, Newslinn.

The Programme, since the Cleraun series has adopted as part of its brief, the provision of supplementary resources for young journalists in Dublin’s media colleges, will include two “masterclasses” for them.

One will be given by with Carol Leonnig on investigative journalism and another by veteran investigator, George Carey, on producing an investigative documentary – featuring his recent and riveting investigation into the story of the spy, George Blake.

That the Cleraun conference casts its net over a wider area than the printed word is important. As Nelson points out, “When Margaret Thatcher was first elected, some 32 per cent of voters bought a newspaper. When the Leveson Inquiry started, it was 18 per cent. Now, it’s 12 per cent. About 5,000 fewer people will pick up a paper today than did last Friday. To hold a newspaper, to read it at the breakfast table or in the bath, is one of life’s greatest pleasures – but it’s an increasingly rare pleasure. The BBC is the hegemon, in the written word as well as the spoken: four times as many people get their news from its website than do from any newspaper.”

He adds that the enormous costs of investigative journalism – in an news and current affairs industry whose economic foundations are apparently disintegrating – mean that exposés of corruption are becoming rarer. This, he says, rather than an over-powerful press, ought to alarm politicians. Britain and Ireland are, by international standards, fairly in-corrupt countries. Only relentless scrutiny will keep them that way.

Investigative Journalism on the Digital Frontier: New Sources, New Tools, New Technologies, New Audiences. Twitter handle: @Cleraunmedia. Full details at .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s