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.