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'Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes' or, who guards the guardians?

By Helen Dale - posted Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Most people with any sense of the history of western liberalism understand the role of the media - the so-called "fourth estate". Allegedly, it is there to keep the powerful in check, make governments accountable, and - in an economic sense - go some way towards evening up the information asymmetry that often exists between citizens and institutions.

Most people with any understanding of western liberalism also know that, pretty much everywhere, the media is failing to fulfill its role.

Press bloopers range from the comical (wrong name, wrong person, wrong company, wrong city etc) to the deadly serious - photographs and video footage made at the behest of parties on one side of a conflict, or edited and manipulated to push a particular point of view. The recent scandal over doctored photographs in Lebanon is a case in point.


In between is repackaging of another news service's footage as one's own, or only attacking soft targets - the Paxtons' story comes to mind.

Stuart Littlemore QC in the 1997 B’nai B’rith Oration includes a few good case studies.

Sometimes, media types will do a Jayson Blair. Littlemore describes how Paul Barry pretended he was a reporter on the TWA 800 crash story. This involved him editing a BBC Panorama report to remove all images of the actual reporter (a Pom), inserting his own piece to camera, and revoicing it.

When reporting on the Timothy McVeigh trial in Denver, the ABC stood its reporter in front of the FBI's J Edgar Hoover building in such a way that only the letters VER were visible, leading viewers to think the story was actually filmed in, ahem, Denver.

Littlemore goes on to describe advertisements run as standard news copy, the complete failure of the Australian media to report accurately events surrounding Pauline Hanson, and the kicker that everyone hates: invading individual citizens' privacy to the point where some have been driven to suicide.

Sometimes I think Jayson Blair had to carry the can for an industry in terminal decline.


Now and then, individual journalists and commentators catch a glimpse of the problem, and write accordingly. In the piece I've linked, David Perlmutter makes a heartfelt plea to the "MSM" to accept its errors and respond openly, or expect to cede ground to bloggers who are simply more careful.

Most of the time, however, there is a consistent refusal to recognise that there's actually a problem. There seems to be no understanding as to why traditional news media audiences are evaporating, or why no-one trusts journalists any more.

Part of the problem stems from a confusion of "freedom of the press" and "freedom of speech". The two are not one and the same, but rather a Venn diagram with a (relatively small) overlap. It's a characteristic of the MSM that its practitioners think they represent the sum total of free speech, whereas in reality free speech is yours and my right to bag John Howard out at a BBQ, to stick up a website full of irreligious cartoons, or to tell blond jokes - without fear of a comeback.

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First published on Catallaxy on 20th October, 2006. It is republished as part of "Best Blogs of 2006" a feature in collaboration with Club Troppo, and edited by Ken Parish, Nicholas Gruen et al.

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About the Author

Helen Dale completed the BCL at Brasenose College, Oxford last year and is now reading for her MPhil in law at the same college. In days gone by she was a writer and hack, but lawyering now takes up most of her time. She blogs at Skepticlawyer.

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