The British Prime Minister, News Corp and Georgia
22 June, 2012

For over a year there has been a big story in the British media. A man named Rupert Murdoch controls an international media corporation that owns newspapers, as well as radio and TV stations around the world. It owns one third of British newspapers and is trying to buy one of the biggest TV stations as well as many US papers, TV and radio stations, including the Wall Street Journal and Fox News. Over a year ago, news broke that one

of the newspapers and probably others had tapped people’s phones, and been involved in bribing police connected with stories. But there was a bigger story lurking in the background, that the Conservative Party, the current ruling party in Britain was very close to Murdoch and the people around him with the intent of exchanging policy influence in exchange for support of the media outlets.

An extraordinary thing happened a few days ago. The Prime Minister was questioned live on TV for five hours about these uncomfortable matters. Like almost all senior British politicians, he is generally a very talented public speaker but he frequently appeared uncomfortable with the questions and the relationships they portrayed, frequently saying he couldn't recall details of the conversations.

There are some important aspects for Georgia to consider in this as it goes about building its own democratic practice, habits and institutions.

The first is how persistent the journalists have been on this story. It was broken long ago but as more and more research was done by many journalists, it stayed in the news as more and more information came out. At the start it didn't seem too bad and the government brushed it aside. But over time as more and more information was dug out and exposed, it because very slowly more embarrassing for the Government. I know of few journalists in Georgia who are so patient with a story in Georgia. I have never seen a country that has such short lived news stories, and I suspect part of the reason is that journalists simply don't have the persistence to keep digging for more information over long periods of time.

The second aspect is how there are different institutions in Britain and the public expects them to be disconnected from each other and when they are not feels that there is something wrong. In Georgia, the close relationship between broadcast media in general, news specifically, and political forces is considered simply the way things are. Generally in democratic countries, the public demands much greater institutional separation than Georgia has right now, particularly in media.

The third aspect of these events in Britain that are instructive for Georgia, has to do with the forum of the questioning. Cameron didn't choose it, he certainly wouldn't have chosen a five hour live session to answer questions about this or any other unpleasant topics but… The commission looking into these questions was so independent, that it could name a forum that he didn't want. That really illustrates checks on power that are impressive even among the community of democratic countries. It is not easy to imagine a similar forum in Georgia, there are very senior politicians currently who are refusing to undergo even mildly adversarial questioning in a forum they don't control.

Perhaps because of Georgia's soviet history, and the interchangeability between the party and the state for so many decades, it is difficult for some people to understand how in older democracies, the parts of the state, and other important non state sectors, like media are really independent from each other. One place that misunderstanding manifests itself is in a belief that foreign heads of state are more powerful than they in fact are. I have often heard people say that Obama will decide this or that regarding Georgia or some other problem. It really doesn't work that way. The various powers they have vary, but in the older democracies the head of the government and certainly the head of the state, some times they are the same person some times they are different, but in all cases there are very severe limits on what they can do. The system requires that they have to bring along the parliament or legislature with whatever they want to do. And the executive branches are filled with professional civil servants who outlast the politicians and exert a great deal of operational influence on how things are or are not carried out.

This fall the voters of Georgia will be choosing a new parliament, and there will of course be plenty of discussion of the individual candidates. This is not a bad time to also think about the parliament as an institution. How independent was it in the past, how independent is it now, and will it be in the future? And as the candidates themselves are chosen, how independent are they likely to be from their party leadership and how loyal will they be to the institution of parliament and its roll of safeguarding the independence of the institution compared with their political loyalties? In every parliament in the world, these two loyalties do battle with each other on a daily basis. The question is which loyalty wins? Britain obviously has some problems in this regard but it is truly inspiring to see how the power of its institutions are investigating the matter in public and clearly have the capability to solve it.

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