Sir Harold Evans has assembled a dream news team from beyond the grave.
The one-day conference on investigative journalism has been organised by Sir Harry’s widow, the former New Yorker and Daily Beast editor Tina Brown, with the help of Reuters and Durham University.
Brown spoke to Press Gazette’s Future of Media Explained podcast about the legacy of the former Sunday Times editor (Evans died aged 92 in September 2020), which also includes a fellowship at Durham University and the Sir Harry Summit.
Asked about what the closure of Buzzfeed News says about the future of investigative journalism she said: “One of the major themes of this conference is truth costs money. And if you don’t tell the truth, the costs are so much higher than money.
“How do we fund investigative journalism and allow this great work to continue in an era when no one wants to, it seems. And secondly, how do we get the attention for it when we do it? So of course there’s many nonprofit models and we have quite a lot of that are being showcased.
“But at the same time, Harry’s great philosophy, his power base, was that The Sunday Times was a cash cow under Harry, it was an enormously successful newspaper. He would have baulked at the idea of being essentially supported by donations.
“We’re back to the situation of either it’s a big individual or corporation or it is non-profit, and of course the corporations don’t want to do it. They always come back to the bottom line… they never stand behind the journalists in the end.
“So these are the great challenges of our time, but unless we confront them and try to figure it out, we’re going to end up with serious, scary social problems.”
Asked whether another big challenge for the future of investigative journalism is raising the reputation of the business, Brown said: “What Harry did do was make people feel that journalists and editors were society’s Sir Galahads essentially, whereas today they’ve become the villains.
“That’s for multiple reasons. We’ve seen political assaults on journalists. Trump called journalists the enemy of the people.
“I think that the phone hacking scandals and all of the stuff that has been revealed, the malfeasance, continues to make people feel that nothing can be trusted. And then the Facebook phenomenon of viral lies being posted everywhere. The combination of all of that has really destroyed the trust in journalism so that people really don’t believe what they read.”
The threat posed to journalists by generative AI is another topic high up the agenda of the Sir Harry Summit.
Brown say: “Whole departments are going to be eliminated in favour of doing stuff with AI. A huge amount of journalism now online has really just been aggregation…
“You’re going to have that being done by AI and of course, where are they pulling the information from? It could be from any place. It could be from sources that are wholly disreputable. No one’s going to know the difference. It will be well packaged, well turned out and it’ll come up in your feed.
“This has now become a massive frontier of defence.”
The conference takes place as the UK Parliament begins scrutiny of the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill which aims to ease market pressure on news publishers from the tech industry.
Asked what Sir Harry made of the rise of big tech, Brown said: “He was enraged by the way the media had rolled over on their backs and allowed Google and Facebook to basically steal content, and then sell advertising off the back of it.
“He felt that was a massive mistake that the media strapped on a suicide vest and allowed their content to be free on the grounds of exposure and traffic.”
What advice does Brown think Sir Harry would give to a young journalist with aspirations to follow his example and produce campaigning investigative journalism which makes a difference?
“I think he would, first of all, say get out from behind your screen and really talk to human beings. His experience with regular people and their travails, their heartaches, was for him, the galvanising force, it was talking to the Thalidomide survivors that kept him going.
“He would also talk about rigour, rigour, rigour, every time. He never wanted to publish anything or post anything or write anything that hadn’t had the rigour.
“He had a great instinct for that: ‘doesn’t sound right to me, doesn’t sound right, let me just check that’. Let me just check that. It wasn’t about going on to Wikipedia, he would go into the original sourcing and check things time and time again. So rigour and personal sourcing are key.”
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