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Investigative journalism: how’s that work?

JULY'S LONDON Freelance Branch meeting featured Tom Randall, a TV investigative freelance producer and journalist working as Wiretap Productions; and Mark Watts, nowadays editor-in-chief of investigative website Exaro - www.exaronews.com - which commissions (and pays) freelances.

photo © Matt Salusbury
Mark Watts, chair Dave Rotchelle and (standing) Tom Randall

Tom did a Masters at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, which included training in shooting, editing and reporting. He got his first job by pitching a story. That's unusual in TV: he has met many documentary makers who've worked for 30 years but never on their own idea. Production companies have departments dedicated to coming up with ideas and others to commissioning people to make them. Having your own idea gives you a USP, a Unique Selling Proposition.

He's done six pieces for Channel 4's Dispatches. He's been undercover as a debt collector; and last year as "sort-of-like an estate agent" exposing a landlord who while running "a so-called charity" talked about how much he enjoyed threatening people with baseball bats.

Tom finds Mike Radford at the Channel 4 Indy Desk and the BBC Newsnight approachable -- as are Brown Envelope films, run by David Hencke, formerly a print journalist on the Guardian with Richard Jeffs, late of Central TV. He mentioned as a recent success the story of the man running a student loan firm who worked as a limited company and paid very little tax - and at that Mark Watts intervened to say "that was an Exaro story."

Tom also works a lot for Hard Cash, run by David Henshaw. "All that the people who run these companies do all day," he says, "is have meetings and talk about stories... so go to talk to them if you have one."

One of the key things to work out is at what stage you take your idea to a broadcaster. Some say "just give me a top line". The standard used to be a one-page proposal. Now some ask for video "tasters".

You're looking at £100k - £200k for an hour of finished factual TV, rather less on multichannel. So broadcasters may give you small amount of "development money" to get you to film more stuff before they finally decide.

In contrast, Tom worked for a year on "the life of Englands' most deprived town" before he went to broadcasters. The Indy Desk were interested and asked for extra stuff, so he spent two months working on nothing but that programme - before "upstairs" said the film "wasn't newsy enough" and dropped it. That was financially difficult. Do not emulate the people at [http://sheffdocfest.com/]DocFest who've been making a documentary on jazz for nine years and at 2am on the dance floor are asking people for funding to edit it...

New models are coming along - Tom mentioned www.fairpie.com which asks for a minimum £2 per watch.

Mark Watts moved from newspapers to World in Action, which got axed: so he recently launched www.exaronews.com - "I've always had a slight problem with the label 'Investigative Journalist'," he said, "and would hope that all journalists would try to find out what's really going on rather than take the huff and guff..."

But now there's certainly a resurgence, for several reasons. One is the shock of the Telegraph at discovering that the readers were interested in MPs' expenses and "didn't want huff and guff". So at present there's "an appetite for investigating all centres of power". And there's been a backlash against the accountants in media companies. Contrary to some journalists' impression, "accountants are the enemy, not lawyers". It's the accountants who were saying that to have journalists rewriting wire copy and celebrity press releases is a very cheap way of producing content .

Then there's the Leveson Inquiry - and remember that it started with some journalists' misdeeds being exposed by other journalists. Mark wrote about Benjy the Binman "a while ago" and "a lot of journalists thought I was completely nuts for exposing my own industry. It's become rather fashionable since then."

Mark repeated the message that you muse avoid the trap of investing in a subject and spending a lot of time and money before you know there's a market. You need to find someone to fund development. In the US we've seen developments like Pro Publica - a non-profit foundation funding stories. In UK TV, it used to be a lot easier to go to Dispatches. There is some scope at C4 and Newsnight where you don't have to be a big production house to get used.

More important than telling yourself you're "an investigative journalist" is to develop specific areas - whether it be sector-specific or technique-specific. The public want stories that are true and well-told.

Q&A

Branch member Tom asked: what is Exaro's funding model? It's commercially driven. It has investment funding for 3 yrs to make a profit, to "wash our face". Model for revenue is to aim the site at the city professional. A broadsheet readership doesn't want to pay for information online, but actuaries and lawyers are used to paying for information for example from the FT and the Lexis-Nexis databases.

Another member asked whether libel law inhibits Tom's and Mark's work? And how can one find audience if isn't from the mainstream media?

"Yes. It's a bugger." Mark has heard the argument from the BBC and the Guardian that you have to be as big as they are because there's a whole army of people out there who'll try and stop your story before you publish, rather than attacking you afterward using libel law. He wouldn't have run the tax-avoiding story on the basis of one insider, no matter how well-informed. Nor would he have run it if there were 5 or 10 of them. What they did was to get documentation of the contract negotiations under the Freedom of Information Act.

Tom noted that in TV you have to follow OFCOM guidelines - and before you even start filming you get "lawyered", and have to show a prima facie case that something is happening. Your commissioner or a lawyer will ask "are you sure about this?" and you have to be able to answer, "yes, I'll show you, on the screen, with audio." Someone always tries to injunct every film. Hard Cash has won every case.

Last modified: 11 Aug 2012 - © 2012 contributors
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