There are two kinds of people in the world, those who claim they are outside the law and those who are happy to be inside the law. The first kind include the Mafia, Bankers, Energy companies, Doctors, Priests, and Journalists; the second include, well, everybody else. Not much can be done about the first kind of course – the Mafia are too powerful to be tackled seriously by justice systems, bankers of course are even more powerful, and energy companies are the most powerful of all. But the other three, while also wielding considerable power are starting to face questions about their status.
Doctors are the easiest one. Some time ago, at least in Australia, and I guess in other jurisdictions, the absolute confidentiality of Doctor-Patient conversations was limited by a requirement that they (as well as nurses, teachers, police) report cases of suspected child abuse. No brainer, obvious need, no point in a doctor treating a child who is being constantly damaged without dealing with the causes of that damage. I’m not sure of the situation regarding spousal abuse, but I think increasingly doctors are being asked to pay attention to this area too. Fine, easy, all the rest of your discussions with doctors remain confidential.
Now priests. The public have been outraged, all round the world, to discover the level of paedophilia in the Catholic (mainly) and other churches. Finally people coming forward, bravely, to talk about what was done to them when they were, for example, altar boys, at the hands of trusted old priests. Lives destroyed, people psychologically scarred for life, finally, reluctantly (in many cases still part of the church), coming forward. Certainly many many more unwilling to speak out (for all kinds of reasons). Huge problem causing great individual and social damage in our community.
The public were even more outraged by the churches reaction to the dreadful crimes. Priests had been merely moved from parish to parish, not sacked, thus exposing fresh new children to these monsters. Each new parish in turn not even being told there might be a problem. Furthermore attempts were made to shut up the victims, settling out of court, insisting on confidentiality, applying pressure to hush things up.
Then on top of that, more recently, there has been discussion about the “confessional”. It quickly emerged that a paedophile priest who confessed to dreadful crimes to another priest in the confessional box would be merely given a “penance” and that would be that. There would be no reporting of the admitted crimes to the police. Furthermore, it emerged, something we had all thought a mere relic of mediaeval times, no crime confessed by anyone would ever be reported. You could go into a confession, admit to being a serial killer of young girls or old men, a paedophile, an arsonist, a child or wife abuser and killer, a terrorist, whatever, you would be merely again given a penance and sent on your way.
When this appalling situation was brought to light in the year 2012 in a civilised secular country, priests, even apparently relatively sane ones, instead of apologising and promising to implement change, defended the practice, promising to go to jail rather than ever divulge what a murderer had told them in a box representing a relic of ancient times. That is, their church doctrine outweighed any concern for public safety or well-being. Again, this is a no-brainer. It must change. The church is no longer running society and making its own laws and the laws for everyone else, as it once did, it is merely one part of a larger society. Hard to believe that this needs to be said.
So, priests a bit harder than doctors, but eventually will be brought kicking and screaming into social responsibility. Which brings us to the most recalcitrant of all, journalists.
Journalists have long seen themselves as priests or doctors who operate in the world of politics. Their role, as the “fifth estate” is to report frankly and fearlessly, speaking truth to power. In order to do that, to find the chinks in the almost impregnable walls government throws up to protect itself, they need insiders/informants/whistleblowers who can tell them the secrets the government is hiding. For that to happen the journalists, so they say, have to absolutely protect their Deep Throats, guarantee that they will hide, protect their identities, safe from fear of reprisal or prosecution. OK, so far so good, go forth our intrepid young Woodwards and Bernsteins, expose the wrong doers, the crooks and liars.
But just a moment, hold that front page, drop that dead donkey. Forty years ago Woodward and Bernstein made it clear they had no political connections. They knew, when they began, nothing about the workings and personnel of the Nixon White House, and, if I remember correctly, at some point Woodward says that he votes Republican and Bernstein has never voted. It is clear that as you read their account they simply set out to solve a puzzle, rather in the way one might solve a crossword puzzle, or the clues in a murder mystery. These days, while journalists protest loudly that they still seek the Light on the Capital Hill, there are few, very few, who follow the independent investigative journalist path. They see themselves not as objective recording angels but as political players, eyes on the main chance, playing in the main game. Once upon a time many journalists could be described as “progressive” or “liberal” I guess, though I suspect the proportion was always overstated, nowadays most undoubtedly have conservative beliefs and inclinations, matching, by pure coincidence, the beliefs and inclinations of their media proprietors (notably in US, UK and Australia of course, Mr Rupert Murdoch).
They confidently stride the corridors of power, doors of conservative party members always open, absorbing, through their pores the sound bites and slogans of their political friends. They see themselves not as impartial reporters but as the promotional arm of the conservative party concerned or, more accurately, the one favoured by their masters. (In Britain in 1987, famously, Murdoch papers switched allegiance from the Conservative Party which had outlived, it seemed, its usefulness, to Tony Blair’s New Labour, which showed signs of being useful in turn). When their friends are in Opposition they will work hard to get them into government, when in government the aim will be to keep them there forever. The politicians will feed them bits and pieces, there may well be public servants who do the same, but everything they get will have a political purpose – to bring down a government, to keep an opposition subjugated, to destroy an environmental or social movement.
In this culture the purpose of the journalist’s cone of silence is not to protect whistleblowers but to protect themselves and their political friends. To make it appear that they are getting their stories from dedicated insider, when in fact they are doing no more than legitimising, laundering, the political output of their friends. There is absolutely no justification in these cases for the journalist being able to claim the right to protect the identity of sources; every reason why journalists practicing real investigative journalism should be able to continue to do so.
The amount of secrecy in our society has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished. The priests of religion, and the high priests of journalism, would be good places to start.