Journalist and author Joris Luyendijk gave much food for thought during his keynote at EIJC & Dataharvest 2018. One of the questions he tried to answer was if investigative journalists are giving ammunition to populism in Europe by writing constant negative stories on the EU. Are investigative journalists, in other words, the useful idiots of populists?
To give an answer to those questions he referred to the Watergate scandal in the seventies, the archetype of successful investigate journalism. The revelations that president Nixon broke the law shook the trust of every citizen. But with the resignation of Nixon the trust was enhanced. A proof that the system worked. The underlying principle was clear: investigative journalists uncovered the abuse of power and kept that story going for long enough to force the rest of the democratic system to respond. A mechanism called ‘self-cleaning capacity’.
However, Luyendijk warned that we shouldn’t be naïve about the self-cleaning capacity of the democratic system. Many revelations are never followed up. A shock to the system mostly ends up making the system not weaker but stronger.
With the political domain undergoing a fundamental change this has also important consequences for the practice of investigative journalism. In the past, the opposition used the stories of investigative journalists to put pressure on the government, who was forced to respond. Now an alarming number of countries in the democratic West no longer have a meaningful opposition that is serious, bona fide and coherent. The problem for investigative journalism is that a democracy’s self-cleaning capacity requires not only a serious opposition, but also a functioning political arena where this opposition can use the revelations and exposures to hold the government to account. For that is another essential ingredient for a democracy to be successful in its self-cleaning capacity, says Luyendijk: citizens have to realise that the scandal led to remedial action. Because exposures without political follow-up ignite discontent. Now the reader sits back in anger and apathy.
Luyendijk doesn’t want to call off the hunt and declare that journalists no longer have to investigate the failings and misdemeanors of those in power. But investigative journalists mustn’t feel their work is done when they’ve nailed the story. They can’t stick to merely exposing what is going wrong. The news medium publishing their work should guarantee sustained and meaningful reporting about the political response to their revelations. And if there is no response, to report on that, too. He even goes one step further and asks if perhaps investigative journalism also should be done about things that are going unusually well. He knows that ‘good news bulletins’ tend to be boring but it is increasingly difficult to deny that in Europe’s current political set-up the critical work of investigative journalists can undermine what is left of ordinary voters’ trust in democracy.
No easy answers
Joris Luyendijk wished he had some easy answers. He knows that the EU will never be a functioning democracy without a corresponding functioning public sphere that can demand action from those in power at the EU level. He makes the comparison between the EU and the Arab world. Reliable investigative journalism is extremely rare there. But Arabs have built a public sphere spanning the entire Arab world with pan-Arab news sites, papers, radio stations and satellite stations. Maybe, Luyendijk concludes, it is time to look south of the Mediterranean for some inspiration.
Author: Melanie De Vrieze
Read the full speech here.