For its event ‘Who cares about care?’, on Saturday 3rd of December, the Bristol Cable invited Meirion Jones, the Investigations Editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to talk. As a former BBC producer who worked on Panorama and Newsnight, Meirion has repeatedly been at the heart of breaking stories, demonstrating the impact journalism can have. We took the opportunity to catch up with him.
- As Investigations Editor of the Bureau, what vision do you have for the role of investigative journalism? And what is a measure of success?
I’ve always thought that it is not enough to publicise something. You have to change things. And that doesn’t mean that you go out and lead demonstrations and so on, but it does mean that you provide people with the ammunition they need. And if you’ve identified something that is fundamentally wrong, that you produce the material that will allow people to campaign against it. You expose stuff, you keep with the story until you change something. That’s where I am coming from.
- With that perspective, how do you find stories and organise the investigations to make them a success?
I would say to people, look for the sort of places that the stories go to. So look for the people who collect stories wholesale. Now obviously lawyers who are suing people do that. You have lots of disagreements, problems, that end up in the hands of lawyers. MPs, very often they are overburdened with people who have got things that have gone wrong. Talking to their researchers you can often find swathes of stories which they have not had time to do anything about. Doctors who work in hospitals; again you’ll find out what is happening. That is also true of campaigning groups. I would say, looking in all these sorts of places.
It’s also a case of being awake all the time. Everyone you talk to is the potential source of a story. It’s just asking questions all the time. The more diverse a group of people you are talking to and mixing with, the better your chances of finding the stories that other people aren’t being able to find.
- In the process of doing the research, building these investigations, what are the challenges you and the Bureau have faced?
Our main challenge obviously is our resources. We do not have the resources of the BBC, where I have worked for many years, or a newspaper, or whatever. So we have to pick and choose what we go for, which can be frustrating. But then, on the other hand we have got a small team. Everyone knows each other which is very good. We don’t have layers of bureaucracy and so on. It’s a very flat organisation which is very good.
- In a wider context of cutbacks within the news industry, the Bureau is growing its capacity. How has that been made possible? And what is the Bureau’s strategy?
The fact is, more and more people are realising that the traditional supporters of investigative journalism – TV, newspapers-, they’re cutting back on resources massively. More and more foundations, groups who value investigative journalism are saying “we’re going to have to fund this directly”. They’re looking for models that make that work. One model is the Bureau model which is actually very common in the United States. There are many such organisations in the US, it’s just much less common in Britain to have that type of funding.
So we have about ten foundations and individuals that put in reasonable but varying amounts of money. We are looking at maybe developing a secondary level of people who will put in smaller sums of money, but still appreciable. And then maybe a third level of supporters whose amount of money raised will be very little, trying to bring them in, into that sort of group feeling like they are part of something with a larger group of people. So there are various possible ways of going.
- As part of this strategy the Bureau is launching an ambitious database project. Can you tell us more about it?
Yea, we’ve appointed Megan Lucero, who is head of data at The Times and Sunday Times. She is very keen to set up a new project. It is funded by Google, and at the moment it is provisionally called Data Lab.
Essentially what we are hoping to do, is collate material both through Freedom of Information and information that is sort of out there, but not in a way that anyone can make any use of it. This would be in areas like policing, or health, or care, trying to pull all that information together and make it available in a sensible way at local level. So, say the Bristol Cable, you would have that fundamental information there, which you would then be able to find the stories in. You would know from local knowledge what is and isn’t a story. But we would be trying to provide those basic building blocks.
How it will go, we don’t know. It starts next month in January. It will take a few months to get going and I don’t know which bits of the project will work first, and how we will roll it out. We are very keen to have all of you guys involved in, with meetings organised across the country. We’ll be asking “what do you want to get out of it?”, “how can we help you?”, and also work out what we think we can provide.
- You are an organisation with a national focus, working with many media organisations, and you are now trying to place yourselves at the centre of a network of smaller publishers. What do you see is the value of local media?
It’s vital. We all know that in the old days, the local paper would go to the local courts. You would have a very clear picture coming through about what is happening. They would have their tentacles in the local hospitals and everything that was going on locally. They have been stripped back to almost nothing. There is a real danger here. There is a democratic problem. The councils, local employers aren’t being properly scrutinised. All of this needs to be done. We cannot have proper democracy if people don’t know what their councils are doing, or their local health boards. That has to be done through local media primarily.
- The Bureau relies on a lot of funding, which cannot be made available to all small publishers. What is the Bureau’s line of thinking with regards to creating financial sustainability, what do you know of models that are out there?
We are not in a position where we are trying to create a sustainable self funding way of going about things. We are trying to get support from foundations, with specific projects and general funding. That is the model we are going with at the moment. For a local organisation, I think, you are right, you have to try and find other ways of doing it. The Bristol Cable’s member type base is not a bad way of doing it. Still, there are grants around and it is worth looking for them, there are more than you would think.
If there was an easy way of doing (financially sustainable journalism), I think there would be loads of people doing it. I don’t think there is an easy way. But I think the Bristol Cable is going about it in a reasonable way and having a good go at it, and achieving quite a lot.
- Today you referred to the story of Jack Ellis, which reflects wider systemic issues. What is the value of a small tragedy story, as you put it? And what is a story that can have the maximum impact?
Jack Ellis committed suicide before the Bristol Cable was set up. You would hope now, maybe, that somebody around this kind of situation, would come forward to the Bristol Cable before it came to the crunch; identifying that this person has been having a really hard time, is being failed by the council, failed by the supported housing provider. You might get a story out of that. It may be one that helps an individual but also draw attention to what the fundamental problems are. Hopefully making a change, a systemic change, to stop other people like him being treated in that way. I think that is something that local media, that concerned campaigning local media, can really do something about. And it’s a big hole at the moment that in most places isn’t being done. I would hope that now that would end up, with something like the Bristol Cable, and you would do a good job of it.