WHO WILL GUARD THE GUARDIANS?

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.

Quis
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.

We might
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.

The
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. 

The younger
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.

What about
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.

If journalists
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
pretentious.

Whether the
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.

How often
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.

Indeed, the
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
purpose is.

Their role
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.

The Telegram
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.

Ministerial
scrums and government crafted Press Releases constitute NTV’s best efforts.  And, not to its journalistic credit.

VOCM590
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.

This state
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. 

Such a
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
Muskrat Falls.  

The fact is,
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
analysis.

That said,
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. 

Muskrat
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. 

Des Sullivan
Des Sullivan
St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada Uncle Gnarley is hosted by Des Sullivan, of St. John's. He is a businessman engaged over three decades in real estate management and development companies and in retail. He is currently a Director of Dorset Investments Limited and Donovan Holdings Limited. During his early career he served as Executive Assistant to Premier's Frank D. Moores (1975-1979) and Brian Peckford (1979-1985). He also served as a Part-Time Board Member on the Canada-Newfoundland Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB). Uncle Gnarley appears on the masthead representing serious and unambiguous positions on NL politics and public policy. Uncle Gnarley is a fiscal conservative possessing distinctly liberal values and a non-partisan persusasion. Those values and opinions underlie this writer's views on NL's politics, economy and society. Uncle Gnarley publishes Monday mornings and more often when events warrant.

GROUP SEEKS PUBLIC SUPPORT FOR CABOT MARTIN RESEARCH AWARD

Cabot Martin’s sudden passing, in September, has stirred his friends, colleagues, and others familiar with his work, to honor him and encourage continued work in applied research and public policy development.

GILBERT BENNETT AND THE CONSEQUENCES OF CRONYISM

$1 million is not bad farewell for a fellow whose work performance represents one of the principal reasons for a twenty million dollar Public Inquiry, and who failed so badly in his job so badly that NL Hydro is still trying to define the mess that he (and others) has left behind.

THE “ODE”: SHORT CUT TO POLITICAL CORRECTNESS LANDS MEMORIAL IN HOT WATER

As much as anything else, it is also a simple love song to a people and to their place. It is deficient in the language of inclusion, yes, sexist by the standards of today, too, but only those who misunderstanding the language of respect ascribe to it offense whether to aboriginal, to gender, or to religious belief.

1 COMMENT

  1. Uncle Gnarley, I think your view is right on, and a challenge to the media. This project is the most important fiancial issue since the building of our railway system, which never turned a profit and helped bankrupt our country. It therefore requires full investigations as you suggest. For my part, as a engineer I worked with high voltage design distribution systems with Nfld Hydro, and following that, worked decades with efficient heating systems. I submitted to the PUB that efficient heating for residential can reverse our demand and at a cost about one quarter of Muskrat Falls, and stabilize costs with little increase. That with residential and small commercial there is the potential to reduce 600MW of peak loading. These figures have not been been critized, just ignored.I agree that the Telegram has provided a lot of coverage on this, but more needs to be done. My 2000 word letter to the Telegram about Feb was not published because, according to Russell, it was too long. I may update and shorten it and try again.I think it important that other engineers should be given a chance to comment on my views. Winston Adams ( My submission to the PUB is available at the PUB website)