Avoiding the past

Last night we just finished watching the Watergate series that has been recently broadcast on SBS. Watergate started really coming to a head in 1972, the year in which I sat the Higher School Certificate. So you would expect that something that happened nearly fifty years ago would be of mostly historical interest. However, we found this recounting of it both extremely gripping, and highly relevant to the current US political scene.

Part of the interest of this series was its use of dramatised episodes. (The dialogue of these was taken verbatim from the famous Watergate tapes. ) These episodes demonstrated something we only knew intellectually: real people had said these things. Everyone involved, especially Nixon, was prepared to engage in endless acts of denial and deception, to stop the truth coming out. The scale of the cover-up was so vast, it was difficult to keep track of everyone involved. Hundreds of people (including the Attorney General), federal government agencies, the shadowy Committee to Re-Elect the President, elements of the Republican Party: all were recruited to keep a lid on things. Later on judges, standing committees of the legislature, and specially commissioned Watergate prosecutors, each with their small army of investigators, got involved.

(Incidentally, when people speculate about Trump refusing to accept the results of the upcoming election, and attempting to mount a coup, this was also on people’s minds just before Nixon’s resignation. The word was put out to army command that they were to disobey any order from the President to surround the White House with armed troops. One of the investigators said dryly that, if General Haig — then the White House Chief of Staff — turned up wearing his uniform, everyone should watch out! Fortunately, Al Haig is best remembered nowadays for offences against the English language, the most splendid of which was surely “Let me caveat that response”.)

We can all be thankful that investigative journalists had smelled a rat from the beginning. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post spent the most time on it initially. Their persistence led more and more of the story to be exposed, and its multifarious connections revealed. The grilling that their colleagues in the broadcast media, most famously Dan Rather, continued to give Nixon and his parade of press secretaries added significantly to the pressure. All these reporters (and their proprietors) withstood repeated stonewalling and intimidation intended to throw them off the scent. At the end of it all, a President was revealed to have disgraced his office and the Constitution that he had sworn — twice — to uphold.

Watergate provides an compelling background to the current attempts to make Google and Facebook pay, effectively, a levy to news originators such as Nine Entertainment Co., News Corporation, and The Guardian. (This story from The Guardian explains the rationale behind the draft legislation under which — if it becomes law — these payments will be made.)

In my view, Google and Facebook are acting in a completely parasitic way towards news originators like those listed above. The social media companies do not employ journalists, maintain newsrooms, subscribe to Reuters or any of the other news services, or write news stories. They just repackage what other people do.

This would not matter if Google and Facebook were not eating the news providers’ lunch in the digital advertising market. The story linked above contains an estimate by the ACCC that Google has about a 47% market share of Australian digital advertising (excluding classifieds). I have not seen any suggestion that the pandemic is growing the total digital advertising spend. If it is a zero sum game, these inroads by Google and Facebook represent lost revenue for the news providers on an enormous scale. All of the latter have certainly shed staff and cut back their operations in recent years, not least by the cancellation of local and regional newspapers.

It’s uncomfortable for me ever to line up with NewsCorp (the Voldemort of media companies). The Watergate investigation, however, reminds us that investigative journalism — no matter who does it — is a public good. How else are we, as citizens, voters, and consumers, to know when bad deeds are committed? Good investigative journalism doesn’t come cheap. Can we do without it, though? If the news organisations all shut up shop, are Google and Facebook really going to start shining light into dark corners on our behalf?

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