A new model for investigative journalism
Famous for their inquisitive nature, the ferret has a reputation for getting to hidden places out of human reach. In Scotland, it has become the emblem for an independent media initiative that seeks to flush out corruption and dig up stories that speak to the interests and values of its members.
The Ferret’s founding statement nicely encapsulates its approach: “in a democracy like ours few things are more important than a free, fair, and independent media holding the powerful to account by discovering their secrets… but The Ferret will not be dour. It will be challenging, irreverent, cheeky even. It will tap into the rich vein of Scottish journalism to produce good writing, exclusive, and must-read stories. And it will listen to its readers, who will all have a say in what it does.”
Its first investigation was the result of a public poll to decide what issue to pursue — fracking came out on top — and a crowdfunding campaign to pursue it. The Ferret has since published over 530 public interest stories, often via partnerships with major Scottish and UK titles such as The Daily Record and The Guardian. Based on ongoing input from its readers and the specialisms of its staff, The Ferret has focused on topics such as the environment, human rights, and data issues such as surveillance and technology.
As Omidyar Network started to scope opportunities to support independent media in the UK last year, The Ferret quickly emerged as an innovative initiative that fit well with our strategic interests in new models for independent media and holding power to account. Led by seasoned professional journalists, The Ferret has had some big wins, including its exposé of a neo-Nazi group called Scottish Dawn. A six-month undercover collaboration with the Daily Record, Scotland’s biggest daily, led to the group’s proscription as a terrorist organisation by the UK Home Office. It has uncovered a public finance loss of nearly £1bn from the Scottish Government’s private finance schemes and Police Scotland’s extraction of data from over 35,000 phones over three years. Recently The Ferret has exposed concerns about “dark money” funding the Scottish Conservatives, prompting questions to the Prime Minister, Theresa May, in the House of Commons and an investigation by the Electoral Commission.
The Ferret is also making an important contribution to public accountability through government transparency and fact-checking. Its journalists make significant use of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests both in Scotland and the UK and contribute to the public commons by publishing the requested documents, with over 3,500 published to date.
As well as playing an important role in story generation and verification, this emphasis on FOIA is the main plank of their campaigning and influence objectives, which centre on transparency and accountability. The Ferret’s criticism of the Scottish Government’s implementation of FOIA was strongly echoed by the Scottish Information Commissioner’s recent report, which condemned the Government’s discrimination against journalists making FOIA requests. The Ferret also runs the Ferret Fact Service (initially funded by Google DNI), an accredited fact-checking service aiming to increase trust in Scotland’s media and to hold politicians to account for the claims they make. It is specifically targeting the deterioration of mainstream media’s use of evidence and aiming to hold power to account.
Omidyar Network is delighted to be supporting The Ferret with a $100,000 grant to develop the organisation and grow its membership. In the UK we have prioritised independent media opportunities that test innovative models for local journalism, especially those with cooperative ownership and the potential to scale or replicate. We are also seeking to support and sustain original reporting capable of challenging power and winning trust at the local level. We’re pleased to be supporting and working with several initiatives globally that are exploring the membership model, including The Bristol Cable and De Correspondent. We are hopeful that, over time, public interest investigative journalism can be largely sustained through a member-subscriber model. We see philanthropic support as an investment in experimentation and scaling in a rapidly changing environment, not for providing long-term dependency.
We also hope that this kind of model, which increases public ownership and engagement with media, can begin to turn the global tide of mistrust in media. The Ferret’s co-operative governance structure gives readers and members a say in key decisions, alongside the professional journalists on the organisation’s board. Its members vote on issue areas that they want investigated, such as fracking in its early days. Recent topics prioritised by members include housing and homelessness. To further engage readers, Ferret Underground was launched in June 2018, including a weekly newsletter and an innovative text-based chat group.
If you’re interested in supporting The Ferret as it continues to nose up the trousers of power, do consider becoming a member: https://theferret.scot/subscribe/