A view from Chris Blackhurst

Emasculation of the press is bad news for society

Every September, Jesus College, Cambridge, plays host to an international conference on economic crime.

The attendees include senior police officers, lawyers, enforcement officials, cyber-security experts and fraud-busters from all over the world. 

Now in its 33rd year, the event has grown from 50 delegates to 1,500. This year, I was asked to speak on newspapers and investigative journalism. My message was simple: investigative journalism is not what it was. 

There have been outstanding scoops, notably MPs’ expenses. But, by and large, the amount of resource devoted to genuine investigations is reduced. 

In the past, tips were gleaned by taking a police officer, say, out for a few drinks. Not so much these days: access to public officials is more heavily controlled. 

Journalists readily paid for information – to private detectives, sometimes to officials – in exchange for assistance. Not now; not after a series of prosecutions. 

Getting to the people in the know in any organisation, civil or private, was easier. Where there were literally a few PR handlers when I started out, today there are 66,000 around the globe.

We do not do enough as a society to protect whistle-blowers. Anyone going public and breaking an employer’s confidence is courageous: it will almost certainly signal the end of his or her career. 

Newspaper executives are more cost-conscious. The decline in circulation revenues has, inevitably, put pressure on funding. It’s a brave editor who sanctions a two-month inquiry, knowing all that effort may come to nothing – that, in the end, the story may not hold water or it can’t be stood up, or the lawyers may rule it out. 

Once, if someone had an issue with an article, they could go direct to the editor, contact the press regulator and make a formal complaint, or sue. This last, however, was often a drastic measure, and the cost would hold someone back. Now, though, they can find a "no win, no fee" lawyer to take up their cause. 

Previously, newspapers could rely on two healthy streams of income: circulation and advertising. As the former has fallen, so the dependency on the latter has grown. It’s a brave, some might say foolhardy, editor who agrees to an investigation into a multinational, knowing it might be a major advertiser – and not just with their title but the whole group. The threat of loss of valuable earnings, even if it’s not actually made, weighs heavily. 

Put that lot together and it creates a bleak picture. It should concern every one of us: a healthy society needs an inquiring, probing, rigorous Fourth Estate. 

Chris Blackhurst is the former multimedia head of business at The Independent and London Evening Standard