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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Our Kiwi bumblers rate low on threat list

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Sale of Washington Post to internet tycoon opens gate to new worries about preserving press freedom

It's ironic that just as Western societies, including our own, are becoming agitated over perceived threats to the freedom of the press and freedom of communication, the Washington Post newspaper has been acquired by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos.

The Post's exposure of the Watergate scandal, spearheaded by reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, with the resolute backing of editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katherine Graham, is perhaps the best and certainly the most influential example in modern times of the fourth estate fulfilling its role as a check on executive power and a bulwark of democracy.

It also changed the dynamics of media-government relations, ushering in an era of aggressive, sceptical scrutiny. Traditional principles of objectivity and even-handedness took a back seat to "keeping the bastards honest".

The Graham family had owned the Post for 80 years. As one observer put it, "They survived Nixon, but they couldn't survive the internet".

Bezos may be the saviour who comes up with the magic formula that enables newspapers to flourish in the internet age.

On the face of it, though, he's an unlikely white knight, as he has built his fortune on undercutting and marginalising traditional producers and deliverers of content.

Still, it's a timely reminder that there are other - possibly more pressing - threats to the press as we know it than those generated by the heavy-handed bumbling and paranoia of our elected representatives and their bureaucratic spear carriers.

Apart from giving rise to the tiresome gimmick of coining a neologism ending in "gate" for any contentious running story in which those in the media's crosshairs don't fall on their swords at the first time of asking, Watergate was a godsend for conspiracy theorists, the exception that, in their minds, proved the rule.

Thus this week we had Winston Peters - who else? - trying to breathe fresh life into "Teapotgate". With characteristic precision and restraint, he described communication between the police and John Key (aka the complainant) as the worst abuse of power he had seen in his years in Parliament: "This is corruption that goes to the core of this country's activities."

This year, the American political system was rocked to its foundations, as they say, by IRS-gate, the revelation that the Inland Revenue Service was targeting anti-Obama groups.

Republican politicians and pundits competed to see who could come up with the most hair-raising analogy. In the end they decided that they couldn't improve on Watergate 2, with Barack Obama channelling Richard Nixon by unleashing a politicised bureaucracy on his foes.

Obama supporters cringed with shame or joined in the outcry which went on for a few weeks, after which the greatest scandal to engulf Washington in four decades quietly subsided.

It turned out that there was no direction from the White House or, for that matter, any irregularity. No one was harassed or audited. Organisations on both sides of the political fence which had requested special tax status were simply asked to fill out a few forms. Business as usual, in other words; the IRS simply doing its job.

While there was nothing to it, the upshot of the media going into Watergate mode is that almost 50 per cent of Americans believe otherwise. The Tea Party got a boost, Obama's favourability rating nosedived, and no doubt, the fringe-dwellers who think the government is out to get them bought more assault rifles.

Unembarrassed by this exercise of power without responsibility, the US media blithely moved on to NSA-gate, the surveillance programme exposed by Edward Snowden. But now Snowden has accepted Russia's offer of asylum, it would be the height of hypocrisy for him and his cheerleaders to argue that freedom of the press is on their menu of causes.

A Federation of Journalists investigation published in 2009 found that 300 Russian journalists had disappeared or been killed over the previous 15 years.

An analysis by the Committee to Protect Journalists found that during that period, only in post-invasion Iraq and Algeria at the height of its civil war were journalists more at risk and authorities less inclined to investigate their deaths and disappearances.

As George Bernard Shaw observed, assassination is the extreme form of censorship.

In the latest Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index, released in January, Russia was 148th, behind the likes of Zimbabwe and Fiji.

Notwithstanding recent hiccups and the current debate, and mindful that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, New Zealand came eighth, bettered only by the ultra-civilised - the likes of Finland and the Netherlands - and the immaterial - Andorra and Lichtenstein.

- NZ Herald

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