Report – By the Pacific Media Centre news desk
Journalists should be clear that their investigations are on the “public’s side” in support of democracy, says a leading independent New Zealand investigative journalist and author.
Nicky Hager, speaking at the Bruce Jesson Foundation annual lecture in Auckland last night, said that controlling information – “completely hiding information and long-term media management” – were prime tools used by powerful interests.
“When information is the currency, it makes sense why investigative journalism, alongside good quality normal journalism, are so important for making democratic politics possible,” he said.
A student journalist from AUT University’s Pacific Media Centre, Karen Abplanalp, was presented with the $1000 Emerging Journalism Award for her investigation into the NZ Superannuation Fund’s “unethical” investment in the US-owned Freeport-McMoRan gold and copper mine at Grasberg in West Papua, which has been embroiled in human rights allegations for years.
Her article “Blood Money” was published in the December edition of Metro magazine.
The NZSF announced in September that it was ending its $1.28 million investment in the Freeport mine and also cancelled minor stakes in three other companies for ethical breaches.
Listener journalist Rebecca Macfie won the $4000 major journalism prize for a planned investigative book project on the 2010 Pike River mine disaster.
Hager said in his address: “All points of view in political issues should be reported. But rather than pretending we are reporting two equal ‘sides’, the profession of journalism should be clear that it is on the public’s side.”
Investigative journalism was about “redressing the obvious inequality of power and creating the possibility of democratic decision making”.
He said that it was “the PR companies, industry lobbyists, spin doctors and the rest on one side, and the news media and sometimes community groups on the other”.
Investigative journalism was an important component of giving the public interest side a chance.
“This is why every decent definition of investigative journalism emphasises its role of monitoring the powerful and holding them to account for their actions,” Hager said.
“It is inherently a democratic activity, a public service. It can be satisfying and rewarding since a relatively small number of people doing investigative journalism can potentially make a huge difference to the issues they write about.
“But there is a lot to do. Most major issues need much more scrutiny: what are the vested interests, who is having influence and is the public being told the truth?
“Many major companies and certainly all involved in controversial issues will be surrounded with unseen politics.
“Who is digging deep into the post-disaster politics of Christchurch? In fact, local government throughout the country is an example of what happens when people in positions of authority realise they face little media interest and scrutiny.
“The finance sector, comfortably grey and invisible except when things go wrong, likewise deserves far more scrutiny. They and many other subjects are blank areas on the map of public consciousness.
“Being invisible is exactly what most powerful interests prefer, exercising their influence privately.”
Hager said that in a small country like New Zealand, “it can seem like investigative journalism is a very rare activity: endangered, if not heading for extinction. But it is a mistake to see it that way.”
If investigative journalism was simply pictured as “being Woodward and Bernstein working for the Washington Post in the 1970s Watergate investigation”, then we have probably just defined it out of existence for New Zealand.
“But as soon as we see it more realistically, there is much more potential,” he added.
Daily journalism and investigative journalism ought not to be seen as separate occupations – “it is actually a continuum”.
“Take the current controversy over illegal intelligence monitoring of Kim Dotcom in New Zealand. Many journalists are only given time to report the latest news and reactions and, if no new news appears, they and the rest of the cavalry gallops off to the next subject.
“But obviously many questions were left unanswered and some people don’t seem to be telling the truth. Each of those journalists who have kept digging, driven by wanting to find out the truth, are doing investigative journalism.”
The tools of good journalism — “persistence, working out the right question, asking the right question and searching for solid evidence” — were the same as the tools of good investigative journalism, Hager said.