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March 17, 2017updated 22 Mar 2017 9:45am

‘Let’s make journalism great again’ – Interview with Bureau of Investigative Journalism editor Rachel Oldroyd

By Freddy Mayhew

Bureau of Investigative Journalism editor Rachel Oldroyd has warned that the UK news industry is in crisis and said “we need to start telling people what a great thing journalism is”.

The former Mail on Sunday journalist said the UK news industry needed to “add value to journalism again” by stressing its importance in upholding democracy on the general public.

She also warned the industry risked following in the footsteps of the USA where “local press no longer exists” and a handful of media outlets dominate the news agenda.

Speaking to Press Gazette’s Journalism Matters podcast, Oldroyd (pictured) said: “Post Leveson, post phone-hacking, the view of the media in the general public’s eyes is really quite low and we need to raise our profile.

“We need to add value to journalism again. We need to tell people how important journalism is and what society would look like without journalism.

“You only need to look across at the States where local press no longer exists. You’ve got two big papers and the news agenda is dominated by Fox News. If we’re not careful we are going to be in a similar position in the UK.

“Fortunately we have the BBC and the press in this country is doing great journalism, but we are an industry in crisis and I think we have got to change our message from the negative to the positive and start telling people what a great thing journalism is and that it has an intrinsic value to democracy and a functioning society.”

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For Oldroyd, who joined the Bureau shortly after its launch in 2010, the process of reinvigorating journalism in the UK begins with changing the language of doom and gloom and includes recruiting more journalists.

It was a point she made at a recent debate in London when she borrowed a phrase from Donald Trump to say: “Let’s make journalism great again.”

News publishers have faced continuing decline from print and digital advertising revenues along with falling newsstand sales in recent years, resulting in mass job losses and closures.

“I don’t have a solution because obviously revenues are going down quite dramatically but we do need, as a society, to find a way to pay for more journalists,” she said.

“We, as an industry, are absolutely brilliant at telling everyone what an awful time we’re having and how the media is in crisis and how we are failing and the loss of our revenues.

“We need to change the whole language and debate and start saying what journalism does for society and how a free, strong press is important and therefore we attach a value to what we do.

“And I think that if we start changing the language and the debate and start emphasising the importance of our industry we will start changing public view of it.”

The Bureau has an editorial team of 15 journalists and is mainly funded by donations from nine philanthropic foundations.

In 2016 the Bureau was awarded £500,000 from Google to fund a project to analyse data to provide stories for the local press.

It is a not-for-profit organisation modelled on similar US outfits such as ProPublica and the Centre for Investigative Reporting.

The Bureau measures its success by the “impact” of its stories and typically looks to partner, unpaid, with a larger news organisation to publish the results of an investigation. It does not have a commercial arm.

Oldroyd said the organisation’s mission was to “use journalism to hold the powerful to account”, adding: “The best way to to pursue that is to focus on how we can employ the most journalists and not focus on how do we get commercial income from this or that or the other.”

The Bureau came under fire in 2012 for its involvement in a BBC story that wrongly identified Conservative peer Lord McAlpine as a paedophile – claims since proven to be untrue.

“Of course we took a [reputation] hit,” said Oldroyd of the incident. “The fact we are still talking about it five years on shows it is still part of our history.

“In all honesty I think it probably took us a couple of years to get over it, but we had an acting editor running the organisation post the event who was with us for 18 months, by which point the board felt that we had moved the organisation on and that we had regained our reputation and from that point we started to grow again.”

Asked whether she thought the Bureau’s model was a sustainable one, Oldroyd said: “I could ask the same question of traditional media these days. How sustainable is print journalism? We live in very uncertain times as a media industry.

“We live in a very fast changing world. I can’t look into a crystal ball and say we are going to be around in ten years time.

“I do in my gut feel that we will be around in ten years time and if you look at how much the whole not-for-profit sector in journalism is growing in the US and beyond now as well, I really do feel that there is a strong sector here that is emerging.”

The Bureau deals with its own complaints – like the Guardian and Independent – but Oldroyd said the introduction of Section 40 would be “hugely problematic” for the not-for-profit organisation.

Under proposals currently being reviewed by the Government following a public consultation, changes to Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 could see publishers not signed up to a Royal Charter-recognised press regulator pay both sides’ legal costs in a dispute, even if they win.

“We are a small organisation,” said Oldroyd. “The costs we could incur could bring the organisation to its knees.”

She said Section 40’s implementation “would force us to sign up to one of the [regulatory] bodies” but said the Bureau had not “taken a line as yet” on whether a chartered regulator effectively represented state regulation – the view popular with the majority of news outlets.

Oldroyd is also concerned about recent legislative threats to journalistic sources.

“A lot of our stories will work with insiders or work with people that we have tracked down that used to work with organisations or government bodies,” she said. “We get information all the time – that’s investigative journalism.”

She singled out the proposed amendments to beef up the Official Secrets Act – and criminalise unofficial government sources.

She said: “I think there is a huge attack – or potential attack – going on at the moment on journalism.

“The freedom of the press is under as much attack in this country as in the US, it’s just less upfront. It’s not coming from the mouth of our prime minister but it is coming from our government.”

She added: “I do think that journalism is more vital now than ever before because we are moving into a world where lying from our elected officials is becoming acceptable.

“What’s going on in the US is quite unbelievable. Politicians have always lied to us, there’s always been propaganda, there have always been dodgy dossiers, but it’s happening at a level or audacity that is completely new because we are seeing lies and then we are seeing challenges and then we are seeing denials that that was ever said.

“There’s obviously a lot of time and resource in journalism required to constantly fact check what’s coming out of our administrations.

“It’s in the UK as well, but on a completely different scale, nonetheless we operate in a global world and we are having to fact check Trump as much as US journalists so I think there’s so much journalism that is going into that element at the moment that it is distracting from all the other really important things that we should be covering.

“There are so many big really complex issues that need reporting on and I just don’t think we have enough journalists to cover it.”

Asked what her tips were for aspiring investigative journalists, Oldroyd said: “One of the biggest things they can do is make sure they are skilled up in computational skills. This is a whole new growing area. How we can use tech skills to investigate…

“They are skills that a new generation of journalists will need and they are skills that are in huge demand that people from my generation really struggle with.

“To bring those skills into investigative journalism, then learn the skills of investigative journalism, will make somebody a very powerful reporter.”

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