This entry is a companion piece to last week’s Post. First published in The Telegram July 28, 2012, it is re-printed here for UNCLE GNARLEY readers and for continuity.
custodiet ipsos custodes? – Who Will Guard the Guardians, is a Latin phrase
traditionally attributed to the Roman poet, Juvenal, and arguably associated
with the philosophy of Plato, who suggested that those entrusted to be
guardians of the state can be relied upon to guard themselves. Though asked in a different context and a
different time, the question is still fundamentally relevant. Today, it is an appropriate query for modern
media as the perceived ‘gatekeepers’ of our democracy.
first acknowledge that modern journalism is undergoing seismic changes. Nevertheless,
the constraints which these changes suggest do not alter the fundamental fact
that information is still the basis of a healthy democracy.
behaviour of media and their styles of reporting, mirror changes, not just in
technology, but in society, generally. An
emphasis on ‘infotainment’ is not just a daily preoccupation of editors, it is
a mantra: keep it short, simple and interesting or risk losing audience.
demographic, in particular, rely on social media and internet sites to get
news. But social media is rarely about
hard news. Browsers like Yahoo and
Google gather stories with a virtual insistence on brevity, which means little
time can be afforded big ideas or public policy issues. Be that as it may, I
submit, a society that values its rights and responsibilities is unable to
afford such laxity.
local media? One is forced to ask, should news always be limited to pedestrian
issues – all the time? News shows, that, for example, fill their time slot with
a daily parade of misadventures, criminals and even innocents flowing through
the court system, are frequently more about titillation than warnings of
societal breakdown. The courts have
their place in the news; but, I suggest, society would not endure irreparable
harm if we were spared some of Johnny’s missteps with the law; especially if a
major public policy issue screams to be explained.
and their editors hold a different view, they should stop the pretense that they
are the “gatekeepers”, “watchdogs” or “guardians” of democracy, they should stop
their righteous rants when government closes the door on “access to
information”, because set against how they have dealt with a serious issue like
Muskrat Falls, it does seem just a bit
media wants to hear it or not, their role in society has been constructed
around concepts of responsibility and independence. They have been given protection for their
work; their corporate owners from competition, and journalists frequently from
judicial and legal interference. In the
case of Muskrat Falls, for some reason, they want to evade bumping heads over
‘the big story’ in favour of titillation and riskless prattle.
does a small place like ours get confronted by an issue like Muskrat Falls?
Rarely. When it does, there is perhaps, a natural expectation, on the part of
the public, that its opinion should follow those of the leaders, whom they trust. But that is not to suggest that the media,
too, should take their queue from Danny Williams, Kathy Dunderdale and Ed
Martin; nor should these people be given unfettered freedom to advance what
might be an improper public policy agenda.
public might well expect that the media will perform its most basic role, first
by sounding the alarm on public policy that imperils them, and later, by following
through on its historical mandate to inform, assess and even, editorialize.
The media are
able to communicate with all kinds of people.
Analytical ability does not seem to be their weakness; motivation and
is made all the more critical when government is unwilling to be engaged, as it has been on Muskrat. In all such instances, the media should provide
that information and take government to task. On these occasions, the media should shine;
its investigative role should be prominent.
This does not suggest that they should represent only the views of critics. On the contrary, both sides of the issue are
essential. When the media’s own skills are not up to the task it should seek out
independent experts to help with the analysis and ensure balanced reporting.
How has our
local media fared on the Muskrat Falls issue?
This is how I see it.
has done a better job than any other media outlet.
The CBC, the
public broadcaster, with the biggest budget for reporters, has not performed
well. David Cochrane has performed fine
as questioner/interviewer on the program, “On Point”, but these Shows have distinct
limits. On a project as complex as Muskrat Falls, the news staff must first
explain, define, even educate. Context
is found first in information, then in analysis.
scrums and government crafted Press Releases constitute NTV’s best efforts. And, not to its journalistic credit.
relies upon its Open Line Shows; but “Talk Back” would be a better show if we
had a more informed public.
FM Radio is all
about music; it is barely in the news game.
of affairs might suggest that the Telegram’s format makes it more suitable to complex
issues, than other media. That would not
be correct. As one example, for years, CBC
Radio’s Paul Kennedy and others have done a spectacular job with the Program “Ideas”,
dealing with complex subject matter and making a sizeable contribution to
intellectual thought and expression, proving difficult material can be digested
on the public airwaves.
challenge should prove less difficult for television. Local CBC TV boasts an hour and a half,
daily, for its news show. A bunch of bright,
mostly young, reporters visit our living rooms each evening, who, I suspect,
would welcome a nod from their Editor to get their heads around an issue like
each media has advantages over the other; that is why each has survived in a
fractured market driven by competition and change.
I have great
admiration for Russell Wangersky, Editor of the editorial page of the
Telegram. He has provided space for a
plethora of writers of diverse views and several pieces of his own insightful
his publisher has an additional obligation, to use some of the other pages of
that esteemed daily as a place for explanation and definition – even if it does
not make the most interesting copy.
Falls is an issue that cries out for someone motivated, responsible and free of
bias, to flesh out its most critical details, to discuss its costs to the
Treasury, to analyse the risks posed to taxpayers and to consider the
alternatives available to satisfy the perceived need for additional electrical
power on the island.
If the media
are truly guardians of our democracy, let them prove Plato’s thesis, that, as
the ‘guardians’ they believe themselves
to be, they are truly capable of guarding
our interests. We still await their best work.