10 Jul 2011

Keeping transparency alive – transparently

Reposted from Nasty Little Truths blog, with permission.

We like to say we follow the British style of Parliamentary Democracy, but if we really want to emulate the standards they try to bring to governance, the powers at large should pay attention to some of the key messages contained in Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech regarding the phone-hacking scandal. To those who don’t know the details of the story, the first few lines say a little about it…

“Over the past few days, the whole country has been shocked by the revelations about the phone hacking scandal. Murder victims, terrorist victims, families who have lost loved ones in war, sometimes defending our country, that these people could have had their phones hacked into order to generate stories for a newspaper is simply disgusting. I cannot think what was going through the minds of the people who did this.”

“But this scandal is not just about some journalists on one newspaper. It’s not even just about the press. It’s also about the police. And yes – it’s also about how politics works and politicians too. And I want to be very frank about how, as a country, we should deal with it People want to know that three things are going to happen.

1) Action will be taken to get to the bottom of these specific revelations and allegations about phone hacking, about police investigations and all the rest of it.

2) Action will be taken to learn wider lessons for the future of the press in this country.

3) That there will be clarity – real clarity – about how all this has come to pass, and the responsibilities we all have for the future.

That’s what the country expects at this time of crisis and concern, and I want to make sure that everything that needs to be done will be done.”

“This inquiry should be conducted by a credible panel of figures drawn from a range of different backgrounds – who command the full support, respect and above all confidence of the public. They should be truly independent, without any motive but to seek the truth and clean up the press. This second inquiry should look at the culture, the practices and the ethics of the British press. In particular, they should look at how our newspapers are regulated and make recommendations for the future. Of course it is vital that our press is free. That is an essential component of our democracy and our way of life.”

“But press freedom does not mean that the press should be above the law. Yes, there is much excellent journalism in Britain today. But I think it’s now clear to everyone that the way the press is regulated today is not working. Let’s be honest: the Press Complaints Commission has failed. In this case – in the hacking case – it was, frankly, completely absent. Therefore, we have to conclude that it is ineffective and lacking in rigour.”

“There is a strong case for saying it is institutionally conflicted, because competing newspapers judge each other. As a result, it lacks public confidence. So I believe we need a new system entirely. It will be for the inquiry to recommend what that system should look like. But my starting presumption is that it should be truly independent … independent of the press, so the public will know that newspapers will never again be solely responsible for policing themselves. But vitally, independent of government, so the public will know that politicians are not trying to control or muzzle a press that must be free to hold politicians to account. This new system of regulation must strike the balance between an individual’s right to privacy and what is in the public interest. And above all, it should uphold the proper, decent standards that we expect.”

But this is my favourite part…

“But there is, as I said at the outset, a third question that this scandal asks of us, and it is not an easy one for me to answer. But it is my responsibility to try. How did we get here? Because as we’re considering the devastating revelations of the past few days, it is no good just pointing the finger at this individual journalist, or that individual newspaper. It’s no good, actually, just criticising the police. The truth is, we have all been in this together – the press, politicians and leaders of all parties – and yes, that includes me.”

“We have not gripped this issue. During the last government, a police investigation was undertaken, it was inadequate and not enough was done. There were reports from the information commissioner and they went unheeded. There were select committee reports on phone hacking and there was no follow-up. Throughout all this, all the warnings, all the concern, the government at the time did nothing. And frankly, neither did the opposition.”

Loving it even more…

“To be fair, it is difficult for politicians to call for more regulation of the media, because if we do so, we’re accused of wanting to stifle a free press or even free speech. But the deeper truth is this: there is a less noble reason. Because party leaders were so keen to win the support of newspapers, we turned a blind eye to the need to sort this issue, get on top of the bad practices, to change the way our newspapers are regulated. The people in power knew things weren’t right. But they didn’t do enough quickly enough – until the full mess of the situation was revealed.”

“Now, when the scandal hits and the truth is plain for everyone to see … there are two choices: You can downplay it and deny the problem is deep – or you can accept the seriousness of the situation and deal with it. I want to deal with it. These inquiries give us a chance for a fresh start and I want us to take it. Look, it’s healthy that politicians and journalists speak to each other; know each other. Democracy is government by explanation and we need the media to explain what we’re trying to do.”

“But this is a wake-up call. Over the decades, on the watch of both Labour leaders and Conservative leaders, politicians and the press have spent time courting support, not confronting the problems. Well: it’s on my watch that the music has stopped. And I’m saying, loud and clear – things have got to change. The relationship needs to be different in the future. I’m not going to pretend that there’s some nirvana of two separate worlds, relating to each other on the basis of total transparency and ethical perfection. That’s not real life. Because as this scandal shows, while it’s vital that a free press can tell truth to power, it is equally important that those in power can tell truth to the press.”

Do you think Suruj Rambachan (ah ‘fraid to say Doctor…) in his new role as Propaganda Information Minister or the PM will take heed? Not likely – we still show everyone that we are mired in Third World thinking …

The day we see that sort of behaviour in Trinidad, I think I might expire from sheer shock.