In our epoch of confusion and cynicism, few professions command the public’s respect. But thanks in part to Hollywood, investigative journalists might just count as an exception. There’s a Wolf of Wall Street but still, perhaps, some good guys on Fleet Street.
So it’s with some reluctance that I raise the following question, even as President Trump faces impeachment hearings in the US Congress. As demagogues and fringe parties launch a full-scale attack on representative democracy, are investigative journalists becoming their useful idiots?
Those old enough will remember that derogatory term from the cold war. The notion of a “useful idiot” described individuals in the West whose actions inadvertently helped the Soviet cause, even if they personally felt no communist sympathies and were unaware of the consequences of their actions.
The peace movement in Western Europe in the 1980s is often touted as an example. Pacifists believed they could further the cause of peace by opposing nuclear weapons. For the Soviets, they were ignorant pawns - oblivious to the Kremlin’s cold war games with western governments - whose actions undermined the unity of the West.
Today, we live in a new era of high-octane political scandals. But does investigative journalism supply ammunition for the enemies of democracy as we know it? Are we their unwitting pawns, their useful idiots?
Watergate and the “self-cleaning” democracy
The archetype of great investigative journalism is Watergate. Reporters at The Washington Post revealed President Nixon’s involvement in illegal espionage – a break-in and bugging of the Democratic Headquarters – as well as the subsequent cover-up. Cue the celebrated unwinding: Nixon resigns in shame, the journalists receive the Pulitzer Prize. Reporters Woodward and Bernstein become world famous when their adventures are immortalised by Hollywood in All the President’s Men.
That’s every journalist’s ideal version of vigilant reporting as a check on power. Revelations that the president has broken the law shake the trust and faith of every sane citizen. When the ensuing scandal leads to the president’s resignation, trust is not just restored but enhanced. If the country’s most powerful man is not above the law, the system clearly works. Woodward and Bernstein’s Pulitzer in 1973 was awarded in the “Public Service” category.
Some call this democracy’s “self-correcting” mechanism. The Dutch have another term: they call it het zelfreinigend vermogen, the “self-cleaning” capacity.
At best, exposing abuse of power at the top ultimately makes that system stronger.
Of course when it comes to self-cleaning democracy, there’s a huge gap between theory and practice. Most revelations of wrongdoing are never followed up. The Watergate investigations by The Washington Post and also by Time and The New York Times were initially ignored, mocked, or downplayed by other media outlets.
Together, journalists’ questions were only one element in a larger political process that eventually brought Nixon down. But the underlying principle is clear: investigative journalists help to uncover the abuse of power, by keeping that story going for long enough to force the rest of the system to respond.
In its optimal form, democracy is what the philosopher Nassim Nicolas Taleb calls “antifragile.” A shock to the system - such as exposing abuse of power at the top - ultimately makes that system stronger. But Watergate happened in the early 70s. Now we’re living in a very different place. Politics is fundamentally changed, with important if deeply uncomfortable consequences for investigative journalism.
Today, the stakes are higher than ever
In the Netherlands where I live and work, and at the national level across Europe, we’re witnessing the implosion of the two traditional political blocs: a large, stable bloc on the left made up of social-democratic or socialist parties; and on the other side, a right-of-centre bloc of Christian-democratic or republican parties.
Until the 1990s, most European countries had a ruling party and one major opposition party. What journalists managed to dig up fed into that oppositional dynamic. Simply put: the opposition could run with our stories. And since that opposition constituted a clearly defined and consistent challenge to the governing party come election time, the latter felt compelled to respond.
Investigative journalism presumes a bona fide opposition. An alarming number of countries now fail that test
Of great importance here is that the opposition was serious, earnest. Or in the English constitutional terminology: loyal. Crucially, the opposition had its own (realistic) agenda. For oppositions, journalists’ revelations about the misdeeds of incumbents were a valued tool for shaming. When that didn’t work, voters could punish governing parties in the next election.
Now, suppose that instead of a serious and constructive Democratic party during Watergate, the main opposition to Nixon had been led by someone like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson.
That scenario resembles the current situation in France, where any devastating revelation that would cause President Macron to resign might well bring to power Le Front National, France’s right-wing nationalist party. Or in Germany, where an epic scandal that incriminated both parties in the governing coalition could lead to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland taking power. The same may be true for the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders is waiting in the wings.
Blueprint from a scandal
To see how this could happen, consider the expenses scandal of 2009 where British MPs were revealed to have abused their expense accounts, often in disgusting, bizarre, or ridiculous ways. The scandal was a feat of investigative reporting. It damaged the reputation of both major political parties, and rightly so.
But when the EU referendum came along a few years later, this loss of trust and standing contributed to the success of the clowns, liars, and demagogues who spread the empty promises of Vote Leave.
The argument here is not that Britain should not have left the EU. It’s free to do so. My argument is that the British people were lied to on an unprecedented scale, leading millions to vote for a fantasy: that you can stop being a member of the EU while retaining its benefits. That empty promise was sold successfully, in part because the credibility of a majority of parliamentarians who disputed it had been seriously damaged by the expenses scandal.
Our work as investigative journalists presumes a bona fide opposition that’s loyal, serious and coherent. An alarming number of countries in the democratic West now fail that test.
The new protest parties are literally that: rather than offer an actionable and well-argued alternative for the future, they merely present a platform for frustrations and grievances - legitimate as well as illegitimate. They define themselves primarily by what they’re against.
What happens when clowns and vandals get into office? Might our work inadvertently be helping them?
The political turmoil now engulfing the United States, where President Trump currently faces impeachment hearings in Congress, and the paralysis over Brexit which has gripped Britain’s parliament, both demonstrate what happens when fringe positions assume political office.
The tough question which emerges for investigative journalists: Is our work actually helping them?
To attempt to answer that question in Europe, there’s a higher political arena to consider in the form of the European Union. The US is mired in a crisis whose problems may overlap with Europe’s. But the US is not involved in a massive transfer of political powers to a higher, continent-wide level in the way EU member states have been for the past decades. For this reason the US and what you might call the American political experience is becoming less relevant to Europeans. Our political systems have simply grown too far apart.
At the European level, a self-cleaning capacity for our democracy requires more than a serious opposition committed to the rules of the game. It needs a functioning political arena.
Where does politics happen?
This political space is hard to see at the EU level. Where are the news programmes, papers, magazines, talkshows, websites and literary reviews to inform a European public space?
We have a London Review of Books, not only for books but also for top-notch political debate. There’s an equally formidable New York Review of Books. But there’s no European Review of Books, just as there’s a Times of London but no Times of Europe.
Yes, I know we have Euronews and Vox Europe and EU Observer and a few other outlets. Reporters there would be the first to admit that the impact of their work bears no comparison with political coverage at the national level.
For the self-cleaning capacity to work, outrage is merely the first step.
As political scientists often say, power may now reside at the European level but politics still plays out overwhelmingly at the national level. Big news organisations may have one or two people in Brussels, but a dozen or more in the nation’s capital.
What all this means is that after the initial wave of shock and outrage that greets European or EU-related exposés, a political follow-up is even harder to sustain than in national politics. European news organisations are getting better at synchronising their scoops, as we saw with the Panama Papers .
Coordination works to create a simultaneous wave of interest and outrage. Talk to the NGOs in Brussels fighting tax evasion and they’ll tell you that the press did more to push the issue up the agenda than twenty years of advocacy. But for the self-cleaning capacity of democracy to work, that wave of interest and outrage is merely the first step.
A political follow-up to compel actual changes is crucial. Reform reassures shocked citizens that this particular wrong has been addressed, if not put right. To go back to those NGOs fighting tax evasion: yes, they’re part of a fledgling opposition at the European level but how can that opposition deliver real change in the absence of a functioning EU political arena? How can political pressure be sustained for long enough to bring results?
Outrage is only a first step
In recent years Investigate Europe – a group of investigative journalists from nine European countries – has done fantastic work. They exposed “Europe’s dire dependency on Microsoft” and penetrated Frontex, the EU agency for border security. Just look at a few of their headline stories: “Why the European Border Regime is dysfunctional.” “How the EU cozied up to the defense lobby.” “Europe plans the surveillance state.” “Mission impossible in the Mediterranean.”
Each of these pieces leaves readers in a state of powerless outrage: “How can this be allowed to go on?” But look for the political follow-up and, more often than not, there isn’t any.
We’re not responsible for how our political systems developed. But we can’t walk away from the political consequences of our work
Or perhaps something did happen, but you have no idea of its effect because to know that, you’d first have to understand all the ins and outs of how power really works in the EU.
No-one could blame you for not knowing the implications. Power at the EU level works in fundamentally different ways from nation states. Invariably, the civic-minded reader sinks back into anger, despair or apathy.
So here we are. The implosion and fragmentation at the national level undermines the self-cleaning capacity of our democracies. Diffusion of power to Europe’s institutions does the same.
Investigative journalists are not responsible for how our political systems developed, but we cannot simply walk away from the political consequences of our work.
I grew up in the 1980s and 90s when the political centre was solid. In those days, it made sense to be as critical as possible about state power and the governing party. At the moment, the political centre is shrinking before our eyes. What worries me is that exposés without meaningful and visible follow-up will only fuel a generalised discontent with politics and the constitutional process.
Exposure without consequences
A number of years ago, I spent over two years investigating the culture of finance in the City of London. What I found was truly shocking. It turns out that when Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008, our global financial system had been in a state of near-collapse for months on end. We were unwittingly close to a scenario in which bank accounts were frozen, as the global financial engine seized. Supplies to supermarkets, pharmacies or gas stations would have ground to a halt. We were perhaps 36 hours away from that scenario. That’s how dangerous the circuits of global capital have become.
And that’s not the most urgent reason for despair. More disconcerting is the broad consensus now - among top financial journalists and academics, as well as former central bankers such as Jean-Claude Trichet - that our financial system is as vulnerable today as it was in 2008.
The fragility is understood by policymakers and well documented, but the banking industry has been largely immune to this exposure. Let’s try to re-frame the problem in the familiar terms of Watergate: Imagine everybody knows that the president is illegally spying on his Democratic opponents, but no one follows up and there’s no political fallout whatsoever.
This is closely analogous to what’s happened to the global financial system. The crash of 2008 was the worst since the 1930s, and could have been far, far worse. After a crash of this magnitude you might reasonably expect wide-ranging debate, followed by decisive and groundbreaking political action. But what have we seen? A seemingly endless flow of easy-to-produce stories about banker bonuses, while the kind of far-ranging political action necessary to make finance safe again seems further away than ever.
Our financial system is hardly less dangerous than it was in 2008, but a looming debt crisis seems immune to exposure by central bankers and the financial press.
Where does that leave journalism? And when will the hardened tribe of national political journalists join forces with their financial colleagues to really turn up the heat?
Ten years after Lehman Brothers, and it seems that’s still too much to ask of political journalists. Some part of the explanation for finance’s immunity to exposure is that real change in the DNA of the financial sector must occur at the European or global level. And national journalists don’t work at the European or global level.
A secondary reason for politicians’ reticence may be because so many mainstream politicians end up working in the financial sector. It would make sense to ask political leaders in every future debate: if your party supplies the next minister of finance, can you guarantee that person will never retire to a lucrative sinecure in a bank?
For those journalists who try to stay vigilant, it becomes exceedingly difficult to keep the story of financial reform alive. The details can be technical and dull, at least initially. Financial reporting also involves a number of institutions that are technocratic rather than democratic in nature: the European Central Bank, the European Commission, the Court of Justice of the European Union.
Add to these obstacles the difficulty of holding national politicians to account for decisions negotiated at the EU level. To be sure, national politicians are deeply involved in those outcomes. But they’re not ultimately or collectively responsible: there’s no collective European public opinion to hold them to account. Instead, national leaders go home to claim victory in Brussels. Or they change the subject.
We need more reporting, not less
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we should call off the hunt. I don’t want journalists to stop investigating the crimes and misdemeanours of those in power. But I do worry about where journalists’ work ends up.
I worry about the emails I keep getting from people convinced I’m on their side: their side being people convinced that finance is run by “the Jews,” or the Illuminati, the Bilderberg Group, or whatever theory makes the rounds next on the web.
I worry when my work is held up by fringe groups as proof that democracy is a sham: “Look how our leaders are in bed with the banks! We need a strongman instead, someone like Putin!” I worry more when I find my talks, intended to expose the dangers of finance and its cosy compact with mainstream political parties, surfacing on fringe websites alongside crazy conspiracy theories.
I worry that my work is sharpening an evident, populist hunger for the kind of undemocratic leadership which readily associates with the make-believe solutions touted by Trump or Brexit.
Is my work now feeding the hunger for undemocratic leadership with make-believe solutions a la Trump and the Brexit?
Investigative journalists feel that our work is done when we’ve nailed the story. If we’re lucky, we might even collect an award before moving on to the next instance of government failure or corporate abuse. But given how radically our democracies are changing, can we be satisfied merely by exposing what’s gone wrong?
Much more needs to be done. First, we could insist that the news outlets publishing our work commit to sustained, meaningful reporting of the political response to our revelations. And when there’s no response, to report on that, too. Shouldn’t we expect national political reporters to shed their reluctance to ask politicians the hard questions about the revolving door to careers in finance?
Answers in new places
One might go a step further and ask if investigative journalism needs to tackle the things that are going unusually well.
I know, good news can be terrifically boring. But in Europe’s current political configuration, it’s increasingly difficult to deny that our critical work also undermines what’s left of many voters’ trust in democracy.
As journalists we tend to be quite cynical about politicians. Is that attitude still relevant, now that cynicism has been appropriated by the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson? If only there were easy answers.
What seems beyond doubt is that the EU will never mature as a functioning democratic system if we can’t build a corresponding, Europe-wide public sphere.
In some respects the EU now mirrors the Arab world, where reliable investigative journalism is extremely rare indeed. While Arab countries can’t boast what Europeans have constructed over the past half century – a common currency, a Europe-wide parliament, a European Court of Justice – the Arab world does recognise a public sphere spanning the entire Arab world. There are many pan-Arab news sites, newspapers, radio and satellite stations – all helping to foster a pan-Arab consciousness.
So while European leaders may have very little to learn about resilience in civil society and individual rights from their counterparts in the Arab world, I suspect the opposite is true for journalists.
Maybe it’s time to look south of the Mediterranean for some inspiration.
This article is an updated version of the keynote I gave at the 2018 European Investigative Journalism Conference in Mechelen, Belgium.