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  • Writer's pictureGrant McLachlan

Journalists put watchdogs to shame

The media has regularly found itself at the front line of debate. My concern is that for too many Kiwi battlers the media has also become the last line of defence.

Increasingly, people approach the media to report abuses of power. They are reluctant to go public but feel they have no choice.

Citizens vote, pay taxes, and instill faith in politicians, judges and other civil servants. Yet when systems fail - due to a lack of consistency or clarity - it is the media which too often holds officials to account.

There is a word for when officials fail to be consistent, clear and fair. That word is corruption.

Corruption is a word that many Kiwis don't like to use for fear of being labeled a trouble maker. This is the problem.

But most Kiwis battle for the underdog, right? We believe that everyone deserves a fair go. Our desire to keep informed and share opinions is why our newspaper readership is amongst the highest and TV current affairs rate so highly.

The media are so effective because they hold officials to account in the public eye. You need look no further than the gauntlet politicians face on the walk to the House in Parliament. There's accountability right there. If a politician doesn't 'fess up, they'll be hounded until they lay everything on the table.

If only our public service watchdogs did the same.

Every day a new story emerges of a politician being duplicitous or a government agency failing to perform functions entrusted to them.

While it could be said that the system worked because eventually the truth came to surface, if it weren't for the pressure by the media the injustices would have faded in to obscurity.

The fact that the media act almost as advocates says a lot about a system dominated by allegiances, smoke screens, and drawn-out wars of attrition.

Only occasionally do the inner workings of power surface.

One has to ask, if it weren't for people like Dame Margaret Bazley, where would we be?

Bazley sat on the Commission of Inquiry in to Police Conduct after the Louise Nicholas rape allegations surfaced in the media. Since then, her cutting report on criminal lawyers milking the legal aid system steered change in the industry. Now she is Commission Chair Designate of Environment Canterbury and Registrar of Pecuniary and Other Specified Interests of Members of Parliament.

If only there were more Bazleys. She has become a beacon shedding light in to shadows where corruption might thrive.

People like Bazley are used too sparingly. People like her weren't used to investigate other under-performing councils and their lawyers. People like her weren't used to investigate ministerial travel expenses.

Instead, we get what many call whitewashes - an important-sounding person asked to deliver a report that 'exonerates' the person in the spotlight.

When key people aren't interviewed, when evidence isn't recorded, when conflicts of interest aren't declared, when complainants are criticised, when basic principles of natural justice aren't followed, the media won't tolerate being taken for fools by such political spin.

One has to ask, if it weren't for the role the media played, would ministers have resigned?

Names like Taito Philip Field, Donna Awatere Huata, Richard Worth, David Garrett, and Nick Smith demonstrate the role the media plays in holding politicians to account when others turn a blind eye.

When the government accounts for so much of the economy the need for transparency is even greater.

Right now the public sector is preparing to spend the largest amount ever on new infrastructure, including the rebuilding of Christchurch. The Government also plans to sell shares in state-owned assets.

Decisions on what is built or sold, by whom, and for how much, should stand up to legal and public scrutiny. How much has been spent on consultants to plan the new Christchurch? How much are the investment banks being paid to flog off our state assets? How where those consultants and bankers chosen?

Officials aren't afraid of lawyers. Often officials just hide behind their taxpayer-funded lawyers and draw things out until the problem goes away. But nothing scares an official more than being contacted by a journalist.

When New Zealanders think that journalists are less trustworthy than politicians, think again.

Pita Sharples proposed the establishment of a Corruption Commission. Just like similar authorities in Australia and elsewhere, it would act independently to investigate abuses of power and could absorb the roles of the Independent Police Conduct Authority, the Ombudsman and the Auditor General. More importantly, it would act independently and access information that the media could only obtain through leaks.

If Sharples presented such a proposal, there is no doubt that, even without National, it would have the numbers to get through Parliament. Until such time, the public will rely on leaks to the media to hold our officials to account.

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