Change in the law is the top priority in ensuring a future for investigative journalism, a panel of industry experts has argued at a London Press Club and YouGov debate.

The event, chaired by Andrew Neil, brought together leading investigative journalists Andrew Gilligan, Tom Bower, Heather Brooke and Tom Harper, as well as Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger. While there was disagreement on a number of issues – including Bower accusing The Guardian of damaging journalism by “waging a battle with the right-wing press” – Britain’s libel laws were cited as the major obstacle for effective investigative journalism.

Andrew Gilligan told the packed crowd at Stationers Hall in central London: “In my career as a journalist I have lied, grossly invaded people’s privacy and accepted stolen goods – for which I have received two top awards” – showing the importance of a public interest defence.

Tom Bower spoke of the difficulties in trying to regulate journalism in the same way as other sectors including education and health. “Journalism is not a profession – we are tradesman. And subject to the most draconian laws.” Heather Brooke compared the UK with her native US, saying that an equivalent of Truman Capote’s acclaimed non-fiction crime novel In Cold Blood would never be possible here.

Bower referred to the Leveson inquiry as “casting a ghastly shadow over everything we now do” while Rusbridger described the proposed royal charter as a “medieval piece of nonsense which appeared out of the blue”.

The Independent’s Tom Harper cited current examples of officials wanting to keep information from the public in the Cumbrian crime commissioner’s expenses scandal and the Daily Star’s work in revealing Surrey Police’s 2009 interviews with Jimmy Savile.

A YouGov poll of both the public and media professionals conducted in advance of the debate had identified a lack of funding as the major threat to the future of investigative journalism, but the panel seemed less sure. Gilligan said that economic worries had been overplayed and that in tough times for the industry more and more newspapers were seeing the value of original reporting. Rusbridger also pointed to his paper’s significant achievements in this field despite increasingly limited budgets. Bower added: “The problem is not money for the journalism but money for the defence of the journalism.”

In addition to the panel, the standing-room-only audience included many leading media figures including Brian Macarthur, Chitra Bharucha, John Stapleton and Lynn Faulds Wood.

You can read Josh Pettitt’s report on the event in the Evening Standard here: http://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/press-regulation-royal-charter-is-medieval-piece-of-nonsense-8898388.html

The debate was the latest in a series organised by the London Press Club. Next month’s events include a breakfast with Sun editor David Dinsmore at the ICA on November 5 and a forum on women in media, featuring Kay Burley, Sarah Sands and Carla Buzasi, also at Stationers Hall. More information on these events and how to join the London Press Club can be found at londonpressclub.co.uk or by emailing info@londonpressclub.co.uk.

Photos: Nigel Howard, Evening Standard