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Investigative Journalism: An Expert’s Opinion

Eamonn O'Neill interviews Mark Daly, BBC Scotland Investigations Correspondent and Panorama reporter
Tell me how you would define investigative journalism.
Well, investigative journalism is a rather grand title, I think, for what ultimately is just good journalism. Good journalism which takes a bit more time, which digs a bit deeper, which refuses to take things at face value, and potentially has the opportunity and the time and the resources to go after some of the bigger targets that you can’t take down in a 24-hour or a 48-hour news cycle. So it’s more in-depth. It takes longer, perhaps requires slightly specialised skills. But ultimately, it’s just journalism, good journalism. What for you are the key skills for doing that kind of journalism? There’s only really one, I think.
No, there are several key skills required. But the first, the main thing that one needs to be, any kind of journalist, but in particular an investigative journalist, it’s just an inherent curiosity. It’s a nosiness. It’s, why is it like that? And it’s not taking things at face value - that’s the first thing. You have to be driven to find things out. It has to bother you that you don’t know the story behind that headline or that set of figures. You have to really want to know what’s going on behind the scenes.
In terms of key skills, well, I suppose if you are doing the kind of journalism that takes longer, is more expensive, and you’re only maybe going to produce one or two programmes a year, it means you’ve got to get it right. It’s got to be right. And if you work for a programme like Panorama or BBC Scotland Investigates, there’s a lot of people relying on you getting your journalism right. The BBC’s reputation depends on its journalists getting things right. So you just have to be very, very careful. You have to be reasonable. You mustn’t overstate things. And all that just comes really with experience and just trying to make yourself a rounded journalist, and those are just commonsensical things.
Now, as we’re moving into this new technical age, data-driven journalism is - well, if one was to look at the amount of stories that are being published and broadcast today and work out how many of them are data-driven that people are often not having to even leave their office to do, then it’s getting higher and higher. So there’s a great skill in that. And when people say “data journalism”, it sounds a bit complex. Do I need to do a course for that? And probably you do need to do a wee course for it. But actually, what it is, is really just looking at figures. It’s analysing figures, sticking them in spreadsheets and being patient.
And learning to see where the numbers stick out, where there’s an anomaly. Or having a look, you say, well, does that mean? And then you just put your other skills into action, your nosiness. And you say, well, ultimately, now what would I do in these scenarios if it’s a data-driven thing? Maybe I’m old-fashioned. I am old-fashioned. I always want to speak to someone. I always want to get out of the office and go and meet someone. So I think maybe the skill that I rely on mostly is my ability to try and persuade people to talk to me. Firstly persuade people to talk to me in private, then maybe persuade them to talk to maybe a colleague.
Maybe persuade them to go and do a wee bit more work on my behalf. And then ultimately, get them to generate enough material for me to either put what they’re saying on screen, or even better, put them on screen. So all those things taken together, I think, is what makes a good investigative journalist. What does it feel like when one of your investigate programmes is going out? I probably spend nine months out of 12 feeling sick. I am continually nauseated with worry, and wondering what have I missed this time? Can I get away with another one of these? When am I going to get found out?
It’s very, very worrying. And when you watch it go out, no matter how many times you’ve watched you’re thinking about what have I missed? Because we’re all human, and everybody makes mistakes. And what you have to hope is that any mistakes that you’ve made, you catch early. Before you’ve made them, you try and work through every possible scenario to make sure you’re not making any serious mistakes. Ultimately, trying not to make mistakes is just about, especially at the BBC, it’s just about trying to do things properly. And there are hundreds of BBC guidelines which must be adhered to.
But ultimately, they’re all just about being decent, and having common sense, and not being duplicitous, or lying - unless, of course, you’re undercover and you’ve got permission to do so. So ultimately, it’s just about trying to do your job right, and how it feels. And if it feels right, it probably is right. So if all those things are all in a row, if I’ve had the in-house BBC lawyer on board all the way through the project - because I always do, right from the inception of a project.
If I’ve got the back of my experienced colleagues and we’ve all got to the point where we’re happy for this film to go out, then I can sit and watch it and think, OK, we should be all right. But I’m never so confident that I’m not worried that I might have made a mistake. And you’re watching your emails as the programme’s going out. And you’re watching Twitter as the programme’s going out. And you’ve got to hope that you haven’t made a mistake. There are times when I’ve watched a film go out, and most of the time I’m exceptionally proud. I’m exceptionally proud because the work that we do in the investigations unit doesn’t feel like work to me.
It doesn’t feel like I’m coming to work most of the time. I feel like I’m pursuing a passion. I feel like I’m doing something better. Well, I am - I’m doing something that I love. And it tends to be to try and help somebody, or to expose something. Expose some sort of wrongdoing or try and get to the bottom of something that ultimately is going to help people. And if that’s what your job is and then you’re watching it going out at night then, that’s a great feeling. There’s no feeling like it.
And then when a contributor whose life you might have changed, maybe even just in a tiny, tiny way, phones you up to say, thank you, what greater reward can there be for a journalist? Can any reporter do this kind of investigation, or do investigative journalists who specialise in investigations share, in your view, certain characteristics?
I think they probably do share certain characteristics. I think they can be quite nerdy sometimes. I can be a little bit nerdy. I suppose the one thing that people would say about investigative journalists is that the work can be very obsessive.
It’s not a nine to five job. If that’s what you’re after, then this isn’t for you. It’s a job that you take home. It’s a job that you sneak time to do when the kids are in bed. Maybe your wife’s in bed, or your husband’s in bed, and it’s something that you’re compelled towards. You’re compelled to pull the document out of your bag on the train, or compelled to the laptop to just check this one more time. It’s having a slightly obsessive nature is something that a lot of investigative journalists share. Having said that, who’s not obsessive about something they’re really passionate about?
So any journalist who becomes passionate about something can get as obsessive as I or any other investigative journalist would get. So it’s about finding the right topics, getting the right support. But I’ve done a lot of undercover work. And people ask me, well, what traits do you need to go undercover? A long-term project, for example, or six or nine months undercover where you’re having to keep from your loved ones what it is you’re actually doing, and what it takes to do that, and does it take a special kind of person to do that? I’m not sure it does. But what it definitely takes is you have to really, really believe in what you’re doing.
If you’re making a sacrifice like this, like that, or even if it’s just a long-term, time consuming journalistic project. If you have to spend a lot of time, not just 37.5 hours a week, you’ve got to really believe in it. And if you really believe in it, then you develop that compulsion, that obsession, and all the skills that you need to bring that story home. What you mustn’t do is become too clouded in your drive to get the story home, you’ve still got to keep that objectivity, that neutrality that a good journalist has to have. But ultimately, if you believe in it and it’s true, pursue it, and hey you get to call yourself an investigative journalist.
Watch Dr Eamonn O’Neill’s interview with Mark Daly, a BBC Scotland Investigations Correspondent and Panorama reporter known for his undercover work.
Does an expert’s definition of investigative journalism differ from your own? Are there insights that you were not aware of previously? Post your thoughts in the comments area.
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