Peter Preston: "Journalism is changing and renewing"

Peter Preston: "Journalism is changing and renewing"
Views from the seminar at the Guardian for SEE Media Observatory.
Inspiring text by Peter Preston honouring investigative journalism which manage to survive against all odds.
PHOTO: Peter Preston with journalists and partners within the project SEE Media Observatory in the Guardian this September. Peter Preston is a columnist for the Guardian and the Observer. He was previously editor of the Guardian for 20 years, from 1975 to 1995, and has written two books, Bess (1999) and The 51st State (1998).
There are many good reasons to fear for the future of journalism: particularly the unanswered question of who’s going to pay for it.  Manufacturers of laptops, tablets and smartphones can make a fortune during the transition from print to screen; but that doesn’t pay for reporters in the field or opinion writers who’ve worked hard to gain expertise. Sometimes, as you scan the internet’s own, purpose-built news websites, there’s a sinking feeling. Does the future really consist of 29 Ways to Love a Cat? But then comes human reassurance. For, at its core, the future of journalism is the future of journalists themselves. And this future doesn’t fade at the click of a computer button.
I felt that almost passionately this year when I was helping judge the new European Press Prize and found something I hadn’t expected: simply, a torrent of really brilliant investigations on a scale and displaying an ambition that leaves the past behind. In consortiums, in networks, in alliances crossing national borders, investigative journalists are using data analysis as well as shoe leather as they track the corrupt and the crooked through society. Do you want to know how a Swiss bank shelters its global clients from the horror of needing to pay taxes? Do you sometimes wonder what happens to all the cash that flows into (and out of) the presidential mansion in Minsk? Do you understand the channels that friends of Putin use to swill money from Russia into the European economy? All those questions were answered - just like more basic questions about local corruption, local housing scams, local road-building pay-offs, local mayors on the take. 
And the fascinating thing is that this swell of inquiry, this hard slog amid thickets of data, wasn’t undertaken for fame or fortune. Investigative journalists don’t get rich. Very few of them become famous. But - in the Balkans especially - the impulsion to dig, to discover, to reveal runs strong. The EPP judges honoured an array of Balkan investigations this year because the projects were great and the delivery of killer facts, sometimes at clear personal risk, was astonishing. Which is what I feel, time and again, when I meet journalists from the region - including those who came to the Guardian on a Mediaobservatory visit.
Much of the talk there -  we were sitting a few yards from the main Guardian newsroom - inevitably involved stories that echoed around the world: Edward Snowden’s revelations about US surveillance, Julian Assange’s Wikileaks bundle of horrors, Nick Davies’ feat in bringing the might of Murdoch to phone-hacking justice. But, in truth, because the Guardian Foundation has always shared views, techniques and experiences with journalists from all over the world (rather then daring to tell anyone how things are done) I was just as interested in what the visitors had to say about their own lives and ambitions - and about the stories they were working on. 
There are solid marketing arguments for practicing investigative journalism. Paul Johnson, the Guardian’s deputy editor, told the group how cutting -edge investigations defined the Guardian’s brand and helped sponsors to fund particular projects. True enough. Yet branding is only one strand amongst many - and by no means the most powerful. The fundamental fact is that investigations - a basic rationale of journalism itself - are one of the ingredients of democracy. The state, from Britain to Bosnia, from America to Armenia, can’t be trusted to keep itself clean. No amount of regulation and good intentions can do that - as the backwash of banking crisis vividly underlines. So journalists, free and inquiring, are always needed. They are a public resource. They toe no lines. They look into the dark corners which bureaucracy shields. They probe on behalf of their readers, the voters who want freedom in place. 
This doesn’t automatically mean that those readers are grateful. On the contrary, people can instinctively resent reporters turning over the stones in their lives. A reporter can be cast as hero or villain by different people in the same investigation. Rich donors who fund investigations may sometimes be caught in the net they paid for. Popularity not guaranteed. But results clearly count. Bankers, bent judges or corrupt mayors are universally reviled once the facts are known - and fact-finding is the underpinning of journalism. What we do isn’t some optional extra in a healthy society, and we do it because we must. 
PHOTO: Peter Preston 
Journalism won’t make you rich - especially in the Balkans. Journalism may put you or your family at risk. Journalism offers no proper career structure. But journalism is also fundamental and necessary. Without it, there is no proper freedom. Which is why, come what may, it must and will continue. Those cross-border alliances aren’t coincidental developments. They are a natural response to the globalisation of crime (and much else besides). They are journalism’s reaction to a changing world. Perhaps certainties are elusive, however far into the future we try to peer. Perhaps there is no single funding mechanism that can support big newsrooms, or help small, battling news organisations to find safe haven from their natural state oppressors. 
Yet, in a heartening way, fears for the future are already being answered here and now. The fear is that investigation will wither and die. But that isn’t happening. To the contrary, hundreds of individual reporters are joining in action consortiums and displaying great technical skill. Journalism is changing and renewing itself at the grassroots. Of course there are any number of challenges. No-one can clearly discern how the investigations of ten or twenty years hence will be run, or financed. But there will be investigations. They will make the powerful frown or cringe. Journalism is the right to explore and the right to know. It is an umbilical part of the human experience.