Monday, 2 September 2013

Truth to Power

by Ian Harris           Otago  Daily  Times        August 9, 2013

“Speaking truth to power” has a resolute ring to it. Given the chance, it’s what many citizens would like to do to challenge policies and decisions they believe will prove harmful to New Zealand’s best interests.
Opposition parties claim pole position in speaking truth to power, but latterly the fourth estate has had the bit between its teeth. It rightly objects to a Defence Force manual implying that journalists are potentially subversive just for doing their job. It is also angry that a parliamentary journalist’s swipe-card, phone and email records were ferreted out in a bid to trace the source of a leaked report about state spying on New Zealand citizens.

Journalists live for scoops like that. The report would have been released a few days later anyway, but its early publication prevented the government’s spin doctors from first sprinkling it with lavender. The prime minister ordered an inquiry. Media anger is more than justified by the gross breaches of privacy that followed, the brushing aside of the obligation on journalists to protect their sources, and the methods used in trying to pinpoint the leaker.

Reporting on the way a government and its agencies are exercising power is a fundamental function of a free press. The right of journalists to go about their duties without being snooped on or accused of subversion is hugely important.  Ministers who demand transparency and accountability from everyone else (currently Fonterra) need sometimes to be dragged into the sunlight themselves, especially when their political interest lies in keeping everything under wraps.

Not all reporting speaks truth to power, but informed comment and analysis on matters of state can and do. The new awareness that emails and phone calls can so easily be divulged has to be inhibiting. The state has revealed it has the means to pounce if it wants to. The phrase “speaking truth to power” has an honourable history, appearing first in a Quaker document from the 1700s. But the concept goes back much further, as an incident in the reign of King David of Israel, about 1000 years before Christ, makes clear.

David was a successful military leader and competent ruler. However, power begets arrogance, and arrogance infects every government over time. It takes a prophet, or a courageous journalist, or a judge to expose it and rein it in.  So it was with David. Strolling on his palace rooftop one evening, he gazed around at other houses and spied a striking beauty taking a bath. He was smitten. The woman, Bathsheba, was married to one his officers, but David was aflame with desire, and people in power are accustomed to getting what they want. He sent a message: “Come over and see me some time.” Which she did, they made love, and she became pregnant.

This called for a cover-up. David instructed Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, to take time out for rest and recreation with his wife. If there was going to be a baby, it was as well for Uriah to think it was his. But Uriah didn’t go home. He dossed down with his troops at the palace.

Time for Plan B. David wrote ordering his general to pitch Uriah into the thick of a forthcoming battle, in the hope he would be killed. Uriah duly fell, David breathed a sigh of relief, and in due course added Bathsheba to his array of wives (at least eight) and concubines (at least ten).  Royalty, power, lust, deceit, betrayal, murder by proxy – what a tale for Hollywood one day to drool over (as it did)! Enter Nathan, a prophet of Israel – that is, someone who approaches life ethically and fearlessly, and insists that wrong-doing will have consequences. He came to David and told him a disturbing story.

A poor man, he said, bought a ewe lamb, which he loved and treated almost as a member of the family. It was the only lamb he owned.  Nearby lived a wealthy man who had many sheep and cattle. One day a traveller arrived on his doorstep. Obliged to show hospitality, he went out to kill a sheep for dinner. Too mean to slay one of his own animals, however, he took his neighbour’s ewe lamb and served that up instead.
David was furious at the arrogant heartlessness the rich man had shown. “As the Lord lives,” he said, “the man who has done this deserves to die.”   Nathan drew the parallel: “You are the man.”

That is speaking truth to power. It’s a model for journalists

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