Imagine, then, a how-to guide setting forth the basic steps that any interested watchdog should take to scrutinize a municipality, a school district, or a redevelopment agency. It could be posted on a website that included pages for every government entity in a state. Did someone just upload the campaign-finance disclosure forms for every member of the Santa Barbara City Council? Check that box. Is there a city in South Los Angeles where public officials’ salaries have gone uninvestigated for three years? Send a roving volunteer there. Whenever nonprofit investigators or auditors uncovered corruption, eager journalists would still be just a phone call away. Call it watchdog by wiki.
On the back of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal and the part the Guardian newspaper played in pursuing it, I’d more or less committed an about-face with respect to the relationship between mainstream and social media, arguing that social media could never be more than a powerful echo chamber of properly funded journalism. But the piece linked to above – in relation to examples from the US and well worth reading in its entirety – seems to provide us with other examples which show that the situation is not so clear-cut. In the cases described, it was bloggers who pointed to the corruption taking place, whilst mainstream media took its corporate time (years on occasions) to pick up on the stories in question and deliver the appropriate coup de grace. This may in part be that in the US individual freedom of speech is much more sacredly understood. British libel laws, meanwhile, are so fierce that bloggers in the UK have to be brave souls indeed to go beyond what a well-funded newspaper with a roomful of lawyers is prepared to do on its lonesome.
If watchdog by wiki of British institutions and corporations is to work at all in the future, we are going to need some far-reaching changes to our legislation and institutional and corporate cultures. My own experience of the latter would seem to indicate that the immediate and current instinct when presented with misdemeanour and wrongdoing is to bury institutional heads in institutional sands. Whistleblowing, whilst clearly within the remit of HR policies worldwide, isn’t the first impulse of those who run pyramidal organisations.
Watchdog by wiki is an excellent idea – for democratic oversight of both government and private industry alike. But transplanting it from a country with freedom of speech in its constitutional DNA to a country ruled by precedent, old-boy networks, media barons and corrupt makers and shakers is not going to be an easy task.
On the other hand, whoever said true democracy would be easy?