Thank you very much for this invitation. It is an honour to speak before such a distinguished group of colleagues.
In this era of disruption, confusion and cynicism few professions and institutions still command the general public’s trust and respect. In no small part thanks to Hollywood, investigative journalists still count as the ‘good guys’ – and ‘girls’. There is a Wolf of Wall Street, but not of Fleet Street. Reputation is an a-symmetrical asset. While it requires immense hard work to build up, it can be lost in an instant. As the Dutch say: trust comes by foot but goes by horse.
It is therefore with some hesitance and even reluctance that I put to you the following question: are investigative journalists at risk of becoming the useful idiots for demagogues and protest parties across the West as these launch their full-scale attack on representative democracy?
Those old enough to remember will know that the derogatory term ‘useful idiot’ comes from the cold war. It was used to describe individuals in the West whose actions were helping the Soviet cause, even if said individuals in the West had no communist sympathies themselves and were not even aware of the consequences of their actions. The peace movement in Western Europe in the 80s is often held up as an example: pacifists may have believed they were fighting for peace by opposing nuclear weapons. For the Soviets, they were ignorant pawns in the Kremlin’s cold war games with Western governments; useful idiots.
Is investigative journalism in the West now at risk of being the populists’ useful idiots? Are we providing the ammunition for their assault?
Let us start out with the archetype of successful investigative journalism: Watergate. The Washington Post reveals President Nixon’s involvement in illegal forms of espionage and information gathering as well as a cover-up – notably bugging and a break-in at the Democratic Headquarters at the Watergate office complex. Nixon has to resign; the journalists receive the 1973 Pulitzer Prize to become world famous when Hollywood turns their adventures into the film All the President’s Men.
This is the ideal-type for investigative journalism in a representative democracy. Revelations that the president has broken the law shake the trust and faith of every sane citizen in the country. But when the ensuing scandal leads to the president’s resignation, trust is not only restored. It is enhanced. For if even the country’s most powerful man can be made to resign the system clearly works. Remember that the Pulitzer Prize was awarded in the category of ‘public service’. This mechanism is what meant in English by democracy being a system that is capable of ‘self-correction’. The Dutch language has an even better term, i.e ‘zelfreinigend vermogen’ or self-cleaning capacity.
Again, let us not be naive about the gap between theory and practice. Most revelations 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. Taken together they were only one element in a much larger political process that eventually brought Nixon down.
Still, the underlying principle should be clear: investigative journalists uncover or help to uncover the abuse of power and keep that story going for long enough to force the rest of the system to respond. In optimal form a democracy is therefore what the great philosopher Nassim Nicolas Taleb calls ‘anti-fragile’; a shock to the system, in this case the exposure of terrible power abuse, ends up making that system not weaker but stronger.
Watergate happened in the early 70s. We are now in a very different place and century. Politics has undergone fundamental change and those changes have important if deeply uncomfortable consequences for the practice of investigative journalism.
There are two levels to consider.
At the national level across Europe we are witnessing the implosion of the two traditional political blocks: a large and stable, socialist/ social-democratic/ left block on the one side and the republican/ Christian-democratic right of center block on the other. Until around the 90s, most European countries had a government and one major opposition party. Our revelations and exposures fed or at least had the potential to feed 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 the latter was more likely to be forced to respond.
Of great importance here is that this opposition was serious. Even more crucially, it was constructive. It had a realistic program of its own and could use our exposures and revelations as a ‘tool of shame’ to put pressure on the government. If that did not work voters could punish the government in the next elections.
Again, this is an ideal type in broad strokes. But to make the argument more concrete: suppose that instead of a serious and constructive Democratic party, the main opposition to Nixon had been someone like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson.
This is now the dilemma in for example France, where any devastating revelation leading to a shameful resignation by Macron is quite likely to bring to power Le Front National. In Germany, a Watergate type scandal incriminating both SPD and CDU might very well lead to an Alternative für Deutschland government. The same could be true for the Netherlands with Geert Wilders.
To see how this could work consider the expenses scandal in Britain where MPs were revealed to have abused their expense accounts, often in disgusting, bizarre or ridiculous ways.
The scandal was a great 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 that loss of trust and standing contributed to the success with which the clowns, liars and demagogues of Vote Leave managed to spread their empty promises.
The argument here is not that Britain should not have left the EU. It is free to do so. The 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 so successfully in part because those denouncing the phantasy had seen their reputation seriously damaged by the expenses scandal.
Our work as investigative journalists presumes an opposition that is serious, bona fide and coherent. An alarming number of countries in the democratic West now fail that test. The new major protest parties are literally that: rather than offering an actionable, fact-based and well-argued alternative for the future, they merely offer a platform for legitimate as well as illegitimate frustrations, defining themselves primarily by what and who they are against.
The chaos that is engulfing the United States and the paralysis currently gripping Britain demonstrate what happens when clowns and vandals of this kind get into office. The question for investigative journalists is then: might our work inadvertently help them?
In order to answer to question there is a second level to consider, that of the European Union. The United States of America are deep in its own crisis and problems, some of which overlap in part with ours. 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 and less relevant to us Europeans. Our political systems have simply grown too far apart. As for the Brits, caught as they are in that big ocean between Europe and America, I will ignore them from here on – if only because the Brits themselves no longer seem to know who they are or what they want.
The problem for investigative journalism at the European level is that a democracy’s ‘self-cleaning capacity’ requires not only a serious opposition committed to the rules of the game. It also requires a functioning political arena where this opposition can use our revelations and exposures to hold the government to account.
Where is this political space or public sphere at the EU level? Where are the news programs, papers, magazines, talk shows, websites and literary reviews? There is a London Review of Books, not only for books but as for top class political debate. There is an equally formidable New York Review of Books. There is no European Review of Books, just as there is a Times of London but not of Europe. Yes, I know we have Euronews and VoxEurope and EUObserver and a few other outlets. They themselves will be the first to admit that the impact of their work simply bears no comparison with political coverage at the national level.
As political scientist like to say: on many issues today power resides at the European level while politics still happens at the national. And so, your news organisation may have one or two people in Brussels but a dozen or more in your national capital.
What all of this means in practice is that after the initial wave of shock, disgust and outrage that greets and should greet our European or EU-related revelations, a political follow-up is even harder to sustain than on the national level.
To be sure, European news organisations are getting better and better at coordinating and synchronising their scoops, for example around the Panama papers. This works insofar as the aim is to create a simultaneous wave of interest and outrage. Talk to NGOs in Brussels fighting tax evasion and they will tell you that exposures in 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. Crucial is the political follow-up leading to the actual changes that make shocked citizens conclude that this particular wrong has been put right.
To go back to those NGOs fighting against tax evasion: they are part of an embryonic constructive opposition at the European level, you could argue. But how is that opposition to function in the absence of a functioning EU political arena where the political pressure could be kept on until there was real change?
In recent years ‘Investigate Europe’ has done fantastic work, for example on, and I quote here, ’Europe’s dire dependency on Microsoft’. It did equally piercing work on Frontex, the EU agency to secure our borders. A few headlines: “Why the European Border Regime is dysfunctional”, ‘How the EU cozied up to the defence lobby’. ‘Europe plans the surveillance state.’ ‘Mission impossible in the Mediterranean’.
These pieces leave the reader in a state of powerless outrage: how could this be allowed to continue? Our reader then goes online to look for the political follow-up. And more often than not, there is no response. Or if there was one, there was no follow-up. Or there was a response but the reader has no idea of its scope since the reader does not understand how power at the EU-level works. Who could blame that reader? For power at the EU level works in fundamentally different ways from the national. End result: reader sinks back in anger, despair or apathy.
So there we are. The implosion and fragmentation at the national level across continental Europe undermines the self-cleaning capacity of our democracies. The diffusion of power at the European level does the same.
As investigative journalists, we are not responsible for how our political systems developed. But neither can we simply walk away from the political consequences of our work.
I grew up in the 80s and 90s when the political center 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 center is shrinking under our eyes. What worries me, then, is that exposures without meaningful and visible political follow-up end up fuelling discontent.
Earlier this decade I spent over two years investigating the culture of finance in the City of London and what I found was truly shocking. When Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008 our societies were in a state of near-collapse for months on end. We would have lost access to our bank accounts while the economy ground to a halt and supplies to super markets, pharmacies, petrol station and so on would stop. We were 36 hours away from that scenario.
That is how dangerous the mega banks are and what I found truly disconcerting is the broad consensus among top financial journalists and academics as well as former central bankers such as Jean Claude Trichet that our financial system is no safer than it was in 2008.
Let me repeat: the fragility of our financial system is well known. But the financial system has become immune to exposure.
To return once more to Nixon: Imagine everybody knows that the man is illegally spying at the Democratic headquarters in Watergate office complex. There is just no political follow up.
The financial crash of 2008 was the worst since the 1930s and could have been far, far worse. After all, money is to society what blood is to a body, with the financial sector being the heart. After a crash of this magnitude you would expect wide ranging debates followed by decisive and ground breaking political action. But while we have endless easy-to-produce stories about banker bonuses, the kind of wide-ranging political campaign necessary to make finance safe again seems further away than ever.
Where does that leave investigative financial journalists? I get very angry at political journalists at the national level who refuse to build on the work of financial journalists and really put the boot in. To give an example: one reason finance has not been fixed is that so many mainstream politicians end up working in finance. It would make perfect sense to ask political leaders in every future national election debate: do you guarantee that if your party supplies the next minister of finance that this individual will never go to work in the financial sector?
Ten years after Lehman Brothers that is still too much for political journalists.
But another part of the explanation for finance’s immunity to exposure is that a real change in the DNA and architecture of the financial sector must occur at the European or global level. And those national journalists do not work at the European or global level.
Those who do work there meanwhile find it exceedingly difficult to keep the story of financial reform going. It is technical and boring, at least initially. It also involves a number of institutions that are technocratic rather than democratic in nature: the European Central Bank, the Commission, the Courts.
Add to this the difficulty of holding national politicians to account for the outcomes they have negotiated at the European level. To be sure, national politicians are deeply involved in those outcomes. But they are not ultimately responsible for them except collectively. And there is 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.
I trust you understand that I am not here to call off the hunt and say: let us not investigate any longer the failings, crimes and misdemeanours of those in power.
But I worry about the emails I keep getting from people convinced that I am on their side, their side being those convinced that finance is run by ‘the Jews’, or by the Illuminati, the Bilderberg Group or whoever is popular next on the web.
I worry when I see people point to my work to prove that democracy is a sham: look how our leaders are in bed with the banks! We need a strong leader instead, someone like Putin! I worry even more when I find my talks exposing the danger of finance and its entanglement with mainstream political parties on websites side by side with crazy conspiracy theories…
Is my work now fuelling despair and feeding the hunger for undemocratic leadership with make-belief solutions a la Trump and the Brexit camp?
As investigative journalists, we feel that our work is done when we ‘have nailed the story’. If we are lucky we collect our award and then move on to the next instance of terrible government failure or corporate abuse of power.
But given how radically our democracies have changed, can we still stick to merely exposing what is going wrong?
Should we not insist that the news medium publishing our work guarantees the sustained and meaningful reporting about the political response to our revelations? And if there is no response, to report on that, too? And should we not have investigative journalism into the question why political journalists at the national level are so reluctant to ask politicians about their second careers in finance?
One might go one step further still and ask if there is perhaps also investigative journalism to be done about things that are going unusually well? I know, ‘good news bulletins’ tend to be terrifically boring. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny that in Europe’s current political set-up our hyper critical work can undermine what is left of ordinary voters’ trust in democracy.
As investigative journalists, we also tend to be quite cynical about ‘politicians’. Is that attitude still helpful now that cynicism has been appropriated the way it has by the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson?
Alas I wish I had some easy answers here. What I do know is that the EU will never be a functioning democracy without a corresponding functioning public sphere.
In this respect the EU is now the perfect mirror image of the Arab world. There reliable investigative journalism is extremely rare indeed. Nor have Arabs built what Europeans constructed over the past half century: a common currency, an Arab-wide parliament or an Arab Court of Justice.
But Arabs have built a public sphere spanning the entire Arab world with pan-Arab news sites, papers, radio stations and satellite stations. Maybe it is time to look south of the Mediterranean for some inspiration.
Mechelen – 25 May 2018