Comment: Cutting executive salaries can save investigative journalism

Investigative journalism plays an important role in democracy – this was the starting point, and the conclusion, of the House of Lords Communications committee’s inquiry into the future of investigative journalism.

By Michelle Stanistreet

But it is expensive. It can be time consuming and can involve a legal risk, particularly when it involves taking on powerful organisations.

Forget investigative journalism funds – we can pay for high quality papers by reducing executive salaries.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) believes that investigative journalism is still flourishing – as the exposition of MPs' expenses, the treatment of vulnerable people in some care homes and the uncovering of different rates of success at NHS hospitals of certain surgical procedures attest. But it is under threat. Newspaper circulations are down and advertising revenues are falling. Local and regional papers are losing staff in droves and titles are closing down. Media analyst Claire Enders gives a figure of 40 per cent job losses in local newspapers.

One of the first things that Richard Desmond, owner of Express newspapers, did when he took over was to sack the investigations department – an act he was proud to disclose to the Leveson inquiry.

The communications committee, chaired by Lord Inglewood, came to the conclusion that investigative journalism is "suffering from a lack of proper investment and organisational support". It has recommended that a fund be set up which would be used for investigative journalism or for training in investigative journalism. The coffers of this fund, the peers said, would come from any fines levied "for transgression of journalistic codes of conduct – including fines that might be introduced under a new system of press self-regulation and a proportion of fines issued for breaches of the Ofcom code". A post-Leveson Press Complaints Committee, with its new set of sharp and gleaming teeth would administer the fund.

But I cannot see how the provision of funds to commercial national and local titles would work. Would you be taking money in fines from one organisation to later be giving it funds from fines from another? I am also not convinced that these fines, even if the industry will agree to them, will raise a substantial amount. An NUJ working group is looking into how such a system would work. At present we are unsure.

In 2006, Trinity Mirror owned 240 regional newspapers – today the figure is about 160. In the same time frame, the shares have gone from around 550p to 49p. Major cities are no longer able to sustain a choice of papers. The Liverpool Daily Post has become a weekly paper, following the example of Birmingham Post. 

As jobs are lost, local offices are subsumed into regional offices and papers are merged or closed down. Local journalists know their patch and have their local contacts and sources, but the bigger their patch gets, the harder it becomes as they become remote from the community they are serving. Many of them are confined to the office, juggling demands from their print and on-line newspapers. Council meetings and planning meetings are not covered. Court reporting is dwindling. Would these papers benefit from an investigative journalism bursary? I doubt that it would make much difference to the level of investigative journalism projects. 

Instead, the newspaper industry should be having a long and hard look at its business model. Trinity Mirror’s chief executive, Sly Bailey, is one of a new breed of newspaper manager whose only strategy is to cut. Once the heart and then soul of a paper has been ripped out, the result is thin gruel for the reader. For this, she was in receipt of a salary package of £1.7 million in 2010 and, since she took over in 2003, she has collected around £12.5m. Her journalists typically earn around £15,000. Perhaps there is another source of funding for investigative journalism in Trinity Mirror titles? Those leading shareholders who are making their dissatisfaction of Ms Bailey known may make the connection. A subject for discussion at the organisation’s AGM this May?

There is merit in money from future fines being used to further journalism, rather than going to the Treasury. Any money dedicated to investigative journalism is a good thing – the real challenge comes in tackling the bust business models and the rudderless companies who seem more bent on managing decline than breathing new life into an industry that is of vital importance to our society and our democracy.

Michelle Stanistreet is general secretary of the National Union of Journalists.

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