Who Will Watch The Watchers?

by MaxPower

Scandal has rocked the BBC, that staid provider of ‘unbiased’ news. Andrew Gilligan, a reporter, recently resigned from the BBC. Gilligan left his job after the report of the British Hutton inquiry cleared the British government of wrongdoing in events leading up to arms expert David Kelly’s death last summer. The reason behind the Hutton inquiry was to see if a BBC radio story that accused Prime Minister Tony Blair of “sexing up” the intelligence files that made the case for Britain to join the U.S.-led war against Iraq was true or not.

Long scandalous story short, the journalist made up some information which lead to David Kelly, the scientist quoted in the story, killing himself. The chairman and the editor-in-chief of the BBC also resigned. Many commentators in the liberal media are aghast at the idea that a judge could restrict the freedom of the press. They are worried that inept mainstream journalists citing facts that are questionable or “unfounded” (in the words of senior British judge Lord Hutton) is somehow violating the freedom of the press. Should journalists have the right to publish stories that they know are incorrect or unfounded? Is that what freedom of the press all about? I suggest that the ability to present differing viewpoints is a hallmark of an open society, but that shouldn’t give journalists a free pass to make up ‘facts’ that they think may possibly, in some sense be correct.

Where is the accountability in journalism? Very rarely do you get journalists standing up and supporting what they say, more often they stand behind their inability to reveal their sources – obscuring any possibility of third party fact checking. It is, of course, just as easy to selectively present facts to support a position which is not necessarily true or false but just misleading. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been accused of this from all sides and yet there is no move to instill public confidence in this government run (and funded) news organization. Who is to say they do not have a specific political agenda, and even if someone could prove that they did, what recourse or accountability exists?

Obviously, this lack of accountability transcends the realm of journalism and extends into the political arena. There are many examples of lack of accountability in government.

  • From the annoying but somewhat humorous: Canadian Governor General Clarkson spending millions on trips to foreign countries
  • To the expensive and foolish: billion dollar boondoggles like Canadian gun registry or human resources development scandal
  • To the dire: decision of the US to invade Iraq based on sketchy CIA ‘intelligence’.

What is the worst that could happen to anyone in the government? Perhaps they will be fired like George Radwanski, but he was fired more for lying to Parliament about his lack of accountability rather than the lack of accountability itself. “MPs later voted to declare the former privacy commissioner in contempt of Parliament for providing misleading information about his lavish spending.” – CBC Nov 6th, 2003

Jane Stewart, that princess of government waste, was quietly shuffled out of a government cabinet position, basically just a demotion. Former PM Jean Chretien didn’t even ask her to resign after ‘losing’ over a billion dollars.

In the most serious situation, US President George Bush will probably just cruise through the failure in CIA intelligence and easily win the next election based on weak Democratic presidential candidates and their seeming inability to make voters desire government accountability.

I’m not pretending to have the answers to why these two critical pieces of democracy lend themselves to a lack of accountability. The hallmark of democracy is exactly that – the ability to hold people accountable for their actions. If journalists are not accountable to certain standards of propriety and accuracy then how can we trust their reports on the government? And in that vein, how can we hold the government accountable if we as the public have no accurate information and the government actually goes out of its way to keep operations opaque? A strong and free press is critical to act as a check and balance on government power, but the press must be unbiased and held up to the highest regard, something that we do not currently enjoy.

Corporations have recently come under fire from both the government (under the guise of the SEC and Eliot Spitzer, New York State’s attorney general) and the press to make their corporate dealings more transparent. This is unquestionably for the good. But who among us will require the government and the press to make their actions transparent? Who will watch the watchers?

  • Who Will Watch The Watchers?
  • by MaxPower
  • Published on February 1st, 2004

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