SPOTLIGHT | David Leigh, IMPRESS Board member: "Decent self-regulation does not threaten the free press, but actually helps it to earn respect, raises standards and promotes the public interest."
David Leigh is an investigative journalist with a career spanning over 40 years. Formerly Investigations Editor at the Guardian and Anthony Sampson Professor of Reporting at City University, David joined the IMPRESS Board in 2017.
In September of this year, David also joined the IMPRESS Code Committee, adding his investigative journalism expertise to the insights of his fellow Committee members who are responsible for advising the IMPRESS Board on the editorial standards and guidance for journalists that are incorporated in the IMPRESS Standards Code.
In this IMPRESS Spotlight interview, David shares some of the ground-breaking investigations he has led and public scandals he has uncovered during his career, his reflections on the value of accountability in modern journalism and how press standards and IMPRESS membership can help build trust between publishers and the public.
> Throughout your career you’ve had the opportunity to work on some of Britain's most exciting investigative journalism stories – what’s the story you are most proud to have broken?
It’s certainly been a long career, and the types of scandal my colleagues and I struggled to expose have gone back and forth with the tides of history. A constant theme however has been the attempt to keep journalism honest. Back in the 1970s, state secrecy was the enemy in the way in which it covertly tainted the water-supply of public information. I was proud to break the Guardian story of the UK government’s undercover propaganda operation, the so-called ‘Information Research Department,’ and to follow it up with the Observer disclosure which won another journalism prize; that the British intelligence service, MI5, was secretly choosing who was allowed to be a BBC journalist and who was to be blacklisted. I was proud too, to have published a book in 1980 calling for a British Freedom of Information Act - only premature by about a quarter of a century!
In more recent years, as the UK intelligence agencies were somewhat reformed, my focus shifted to writing exposures about the then largely untold story of British bribery and corruption. In the Observer, and with the campaigning TV series This Week and World in Action, I was able to work on the worldwide money-laundering schemes of UK arms companies, and the way they propped up bad regimes. My 1995 documentary Jonathan of Arabia led to the arrest of senior British politician Jonathan Aitken on perjury charges, after my investigation showed that Aitken, then arms sales minister, was involved with bribes to be paid to Saudi royalty.
In the latter half of my career, I was exceptionally proud to have been among the pioneers of a new school of international collaborative journalism, in which teams of investigative reporters from dozens of countries learned to use the new tools of the internet to analyse huge troves of leaked data. This culminated in the successful analysis and publication of the revelations by Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, shining a light on the real world.
> What does accountability mean in the context of journalism?
Free speech is a jewel and democracies can’t function without it. I’ve always campaigned against censorship. And I’ve not always bowed to British information laws, particularly about libel and official secrets. Unearthing the deeds of the powerful is a difficult job which sometimes calls for a buccaneering approach. All the more important then, that journalists should be answerable if they engage in disreputable behaviour that isn’t in the public interest. At the unscrupulous end of my trade, I’ve seen journalists be cruel, intrusive, bullying, dishonest and even criminal. This is not only wrong in itself, but harms serious investigative journalism by depriving it of respect.
> What inspired you to become an IMPRESS Board member?
I want to show that decent self-regulation does not threaten the free press, but actually helps it to earn respect, raises standards and promotes the public interest.
> How would you describe your experience at IMPRESS over the years? What have you learned so far?
Since I joined, I’ve been greatly impressed by the diligence and good sense with which IMPRESS carries out its regulatory work; and very heartened by the number of digital start-ups and investigative outfits who want to be associated with it.
> Why do you think press standards are important?
The work of the IMPRESS code committee, which I’ve recently joined, goes further than merely a list of ‘dos and don’ts’, in providing - we hope - modern, evolving guidance for journalists who want to do a better job.
> Why do you think publishers should join IMPRESS? What can being a member of IMPRESS mean for their day to day work in the newsroom?
The biggest problem for investigative journalism in the online age is about trust. On the screen of a smartphone, everything looks the same. But some revelations are trustworthy, and many others are not. IMPRESS membership, with that commitment to independent self-regulation, builds trust with readers. It also provides a practical compass to steer by for each working journalist, and a college of colleagues who have signed up to decent professional standards which they can be proud of.
David Leigh was Anthony Sampson professor of reporting at City, University of London 2006-18. Until he retired from the paper in 2013, he was investigations editor at The Guardian for 13 years. In a journalism career spanning over 40 years he also worked for The Observer, The Times, The Scotsman, Granada TV, Thames TV and the Washington Post. He has won numerous journalism awards including Investigation of the Year 2015 (British Journalism Awards), Lifetime Achievement Award 2013, Global Investigative Journalism Network, and awards at the British Press Awards in 1979,1996 and 1997. His latest book is Investigative Journalism – a survival guide.