Monday, 18 June 2012

Forty years ago today journalism started on the road towards its finest hour!

40 years ago today the Washington Post carried a small story at the bottom of page one with the headline “Five held in plot to bug Democratic offices”.  This was the start of what is probably the greatest journalistic triumph of all time.

At the time nobody much cared, but within two years the dogged pursuit of the story by the Post, in particular journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, had caused the story to be renamed, creating a suffix which has become synonymous with political scandal ever since.

Watergate, as it became known, is the mother of all ‘gates.  In simple terms it was, in Nixon’s words, a “third-rate burglary” of the Democratic Party office in the Watergate complex perpetrated by White House henchmen and designed to uncover embarrassing information about candidates for the Presidency. 

In reality, it is the story of how journalists on the Post, in the face of unprecedented political and peer pressure (for months no other newspaper would touch the story) uncovered a political scandal which brought down a President.

In many ways this was the high water mark for the profession.  With a series of brilliant scoops, often using unnamed sources, the Post linked campaign contributions to the Committee to re-elect the President, or CREEP as it was known (you couldn’t make it up!), to the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars and then linked the White House to the burglars in the person of Charles Colson, Special Adviser to the President who was effectively in charge of campaign dirty tricks. 

When Nixon embarked on a cover-up, the Post continued its pursuit alleging that the White House had instructed the CIA to illegally block the FBI investigation and that documents had been shredded at the Justice Department.

As Nixon wriggled on the hook the Post linked Presidential advisers of increasing importance with either the original break-in or the cover-up, eventually forcing Nixon to sack his most senior advisers, namely Chief of Staff HR ‘Bob’ Haldemann and policy adviser John Ehrlichman.   When the Senate started investigating, and the Oval Office "tapes' became public knowledge, Nixon's fate was sealed.  In all 43 people went to prison for Watergate related crimes, although of course not Nixon himself.

Forty years on the media landscape looks very different.  The web is making traditional print news look, at best sluggish and, at worst, positively outdated.  Newspapers across the country are closing, merging or going down one edition per week.  Social media is making us all into 'Citizen Journalists' armed with our iPhones to record events to post ourselves on YouTube.  Twitter and trending allow instant sharing of information. 

Most importantly, journalism itself is now in the dock.  Parallels between phone hacking and Watergate have been made before, but it is startling that the key lesson, that the cover-up is at least as bad as the original crime, appears not to have been learnt.  For the White House substitute News International with all of its alleged shredding, obstruction of justice and non-denial denials.

However, it would be wrong to paint journalism as an outdated and dying profession.  The Telegraph’s investigation of MPs expenses proved that investigative journalism can perform a public duty in the 21st Century.  The challenge for Leveson is to bring the press into line without strangling the opportunity for the sort of investigation which holds our public officials up to scrutiny and can bring down a President.


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