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Journalism and the HDC Papers

Thursday, April 21, 2016

I have held the view for a long time that despite the nagging, adamant calls, and a clear need for it, our society does not really want “investigative journalism.”

In most instances, the complaint that not enough investigation accompanies journalistic revelation is either a simple regurgitation of what appears to be fashionable in some more serious countries or an expression of partisan desire—everybody’s happy for it, once it’s not you involved.

Every opportunity I get, I take the liberty of suggesting that the politicians fear it, the business community does not want it, organised religion recoils at the thought, civil society organisations can do without it and, indeed, the media industry sometimes does not see sustained journalistic enquiry as being in their best commercial and other interests. 

The vulnerabilities are stark and raw and readily evident and fear of the corruption “single story” abounds.

The real problem, I would propose, has to do with that fact that should a clear, focused and unfiltered mirror be held up to the national landscape, the ensuing, chilling image would have the potential to undermine important pillars of what is actually an extensive, joint enterprise of corruption.

It is easy, under current circumstances, to focus on political hypocrisy because it is so readily evident. People everywhere are heard to say, without a quiver in their voices, that changes in political administration merely mean a change of hands in the cookie jar… “so what?”

“Performance” is also thought sufficient to trump transparency and accountability, even as the late Desmond Cartey’s immortal refrain rings out uncomfortably a few months short of 50 years ago when he infamously declared: “Some t’ief big, some t’ief small, but big or small, all ah we t’ief.”

“Let those without sin cast the first stone” is now deemed an adequate defence—a means of stifling inconvenient truths, a disabling strategy and a route to invoking ad hominem attack. It’s not unlike: “They did it too” and “It doesn’t matter who it is, this will continue.”

Against this backdrop come the HDC Papers and all the usual suspects, expressed here not as individuals but as representative of the dysfunctional institutions of the state, business, labour and general polity. For sure, the culture of silence and an absence of adequate resources and institutional commitment, guaranteed a moderately deficient enquiry. It might be that a more wholesome analysis of confirmed data could have avoided a measure of collateral damage.

But these are risks the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and other famous journalistic collaborations would have themselves contemplated. 

Indeed, over time, the Panama Papers may well confront justifiable slings and arrows and, in the process, help perpetuate the phenomenon of the flawed and slaughtered messenger.

It has not helped us over the years that our Freedom of Information Act has not been accompanied by the required change in administrative mind-set or that the proposed legislative protection of legitimate whistle-blowers appears too meagre a serving. Nobody has really been serious about this. That is clear to me.

If anything, the presence of moves in these directions has generally amounted to mere fashion displays on the catwalk of the good governance parade. 

Openness and transparency have not been flagged as organic evidence of our progress, and the lack of sophisticated responses to work such as the HDC Papers raises the bandage on a festering, perhaps mortal wound.

In the process, journalism takes the hit. The enemies of a free press and closet partisans wriggle out of their holes at the slightest sign of its vulnerability. They’re everywhere nowadays. See how they run. See how they run.

It does not help that from among our ranks have been a few who have grown hungry or greedy enough to yield to ubiquitous temptation. Sometimes we think it and refuse to believe it—who they are, and the roads they have travelled. 

Reduced to this. It’s there in well-chosen lines of news copy, the studied nuance of the columns and on raw display in broadcast media. We should know them by now—these slurs on our professional integrity, reduced to greasy, brown envelopes at street corners in the dark of night. 

These are not the known agents of open propaganda, however clad in the gear of independent thought and action.

For sure, the overwhelming majority of our journalists have neither achieved the level of prominence to be considered worthy of their own brown envelopes or paper bags nor do they contemplate a professional future unfairly rewarded by places at the head of any queue.

That the author of the HDC Papers, Asha Javeed, should now face both internal and external ostracism for what she considered to be her duty is an appalling statement on our collective condition as citizens and as fellow journalists.

Nowhere have we seen either informed repudiation or the stimulation of further data-driven study and investigation. The culture of silence threatens to wrap its ample fingers around the neck of this story and squeeze the life out of it.

Yes, press freedom sabres remain to be rattled and shields to be clanged on this issue, no matter what the partisans say. We dare not engage this battle at our peril, comrades.


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