Clink of ice in a toast to freedom of the press

RIDING SHOTGUN

RACHEL STEWART
Last updated 08:31 05/08/2013

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Riding Shotgun

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On the balmy California evening of August 8, 1974, I was lying on my living room floor in front of a flickering television screen. I was totally riveted. I knew it was big news.

My parents kept repeating, over the cheerful clink of ice in their celebratory glasses, that it was history in the making. I got out my new portable tape deck, loaded the cassette and held the microphone up close to the TV.

Richard Nixon's resignation speech to the nation was both emotional and subdued, with a healthy serving of thinly veiled anger.

Talking in generalities he made no mention of his complicity in the Watergate scandal, and remains the only American president to ever resign the office.

His presidency ended 18 months into his second term and after he had started an investigation to find the source of a leak. In doing so legal breaches were rife, and it eventually turned into a massive coverup.

During Nixon's first term he had ordered the formation of "plumbers" who, in the course of investigating internal leaks, also undertook wiretapping of anybody the president considered politically dangerous.

This ultimately led to the 1972 break-in of the Democratic Party's national headquarters at the Watergate Hotel.

Because the media kept on digging - particularly The Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein - the trail led directly back to the president.

During the process some of Nixon's closest aides' heads rolled and he more than willingly let them take the fall.

Is any of this sounding mildly familiar?

Nixon blatantly refused to co- operate with investigators. Finally, the Supreme Court subpoenaed him to release the tapes the "plumbers" had recorded at his bidding.

One particular tape proved his culpability beyond doubt and, knowing he would be impeached, Nixon resigned. He never accepted any personal responsibility.

Post-Watergate investigative journalism in the US suddenly became sexy.

Enrolments in journalism courses went through the roof. A raft of new political ethics laws also followed.

It was generally accepted that were it not for Woodward and Bernstein's investigative perseverance the coverup would have remained just that.

Carefully timed leaks from their source on the inside (known back then only as Deep Throat) were also regarded as crucial to the outcome. Journalism found a whole new lease of life.

Watching our own mini-version of Watergate unfolding is fascinating. Of course, compared with New Zealand the US is a totally different kettle of political fish. We differ not just geographically, constitutionally and socially, but also in the height levels our outrage meters reach.

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Americans are easily shocked in matters of the flesh, and gleefully oversee the swift fall of their elected representatives when they invariably trip up over a woman's skirt or a man's jockstrap. It is merely a reflection of their country's fervent wing of religious nut-jobbery.

Kiwis generally are less shocked by such matters. We are not really a tut-tutting lot by nature and, at worst, we laugh at political sexual indiscretions - that is, if we hear about them in the first place. Our media doesn't really go there and I for one am grateful for that.

The thing that moves apathetic New Zealanders to dissent is the idea that something's just not fair. The GCSB Bill's hasty drafting, due in part to the illegal Dotcom raid, points towards the lack of "a fair go". That's just the Kiwi hot button John Key and his cohorts really don't want to be pressing.

The really big, bad button they've so far successfully managed to push is the Fourth Estate's. The irony for this Government is that the privacy breach of Fairfax's Andrea Vance will effectively hone the skills and enthusiasm of journalists in this country forever.

You can already see re- energised political reporters on the nightly news.

Anger can do that to a person.

Journalists in general are at pains to be seen as consistently objective and balanced, and fair enough. However, in my view, there is ample room for authentic objectivity and balance in journalism by calling out obvious lies, false statements and obfuscation - and even more so when politically powerful people are indulging in it.

More revelations will come and more heads will roll, with Key believing this will stem the tide of his steadily decreasing public popularity. I'll take a punt and say we have just witnessed the beginning of the end of this Government.

I won't be taking out my battered old tape deck and pressing the mic up to the TV speaker. I'm an adult now, and as an adult I'm more likely to emulate the response of my parents to Nixon's demise and indulge in the clink of ice in my glass of high spirits. I will make a toast to the enduring freedom of the press.

- Taranaki Daily News

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