The abuse of power for fun

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON DC - This has been one of the biggest weeks ever here for what is called 'infotainment'. Infotainment is the art and business of entertaining the public while informing it, or pretending to inform it. Infotainment flourishes, and claims victims, on both sides of the Atlantic. But it does not work in the same way, or with the same virulence on both sides, although the basic material it exploits is always the same: the dirt that can be dug out about prominent or powerful people.

The great difference in this matter between Britain and America is that in Britain the principal victims, though by no means the only ones, are prominent without being powerful, whereas in America power and prominence have a greater tendency to coincide.

In Britain, there is a special caste, known as the Royal Family, which is the focus of the prime and permanent attention of the infotainers. Here and there the odd politician gets the treatment - Profumo, Parkinson, Mellor, Yeo - but most of the time the headhunters of infotainment are after more glamorous prey.

America is different, mainly because the president is head of state as well as head of government, and there is no shield protecting him from the full glare of the fierce light that beats upon a throne. But there is also a specific reason why Washington DC is the happiest of hunting grounds for the infotainers. This is the constitutional proviso that the most important presidential nominations to the executive and judicial branches are subject to Congressional approval.

In the past, this seems to have been mainly a formality. But all that has changed, and is still changing, under the pressures of a television-dominated culture, of which both politicians and the print media are now part.

The process of Congressional approval has become a spectacle, a suspense mystery, and often a blood sport. Under previous administrations, Robert Bork was turned down for the Supreme Court, and John Tower for defense secretary, amid vast media hullabaloo. Under similar pressures, President Clinton had to withdraw - or at any rate he withdrew - his nominations of Morton Halperin as assistant secretary of defense and Lani Guinier as assistant attorney general for civil rights.

The latest victim, and the most eminent under the present administration, is Admiral (retired) Bobby Ray Inman, Clinton's nominee as defense secretary. Clinton nominated him a month ago, and he was generally regarded as a shoo-in. This week, Inman withdrew his name, giving as his reason the fear of what the media could do to him and his family as the hearings continued.

Predictably, commentators are sneering at this loss of nerve on the part of a senior naval officer 'before the first shot was fired in his confirmation hearings'. It is being plausibly argued that this exposure of lack of moral fibre on the part of the nominee for defense secretary vindicates the vigour of the media in turning its salutary searchlight on every nominee for high office. As often, when the media are defending the media, this argument misses the point. The courage that is required to confront media inquisition into character is of a different and much more dubious order than what is required of an officer in battle, or of an official charged with high responsibility for defence.

Honour is, of necessity, a prime consideration in a military career. 'Death rather than dishonour' may perhaps sound a tatty slogan in the late 20th century, but it must always represent a strict order of priority for the military, at any time and in any place. And the species of courage that is demanded of Admiral Inman by the media is courage to accept dishonour, for himself and his family. It seems questionable whether that kind of courage is desirable at the highest level, at the expense of the more traditional kinds. But that is what has happened in the case of Admiral Inman.

No charges of any gravity have been made against the admiral: nothing more than what is now the routine 'Nannygate' stuff about past failure to make social welfare payments for a domestic servant. But the admiral knew that, once the hearings opened, he and his family would be up for grabs.

Anyone who liked to allege that a nominee's wife had once been an alcoholic or mental patient, or could show that a son or daughter had been charged with driving or drugs offences, could have their outing in the media. This publicity would be unlikely to affect confirmation - and Inman's confirmation seemed virtually certain - but it could make life a hell for the nominee and members of his family.

The worst of it is that, in America, neither nominees nor anybody else have any effective claim, any longer, to legal redress against defamation. The First Amendment (freedom of expression) always made it harder to win a libel action here than in Britain. But recent decisions have made it virtually impossible.

It is no longer enough for a plaintiff to prove that a published statement is both damaging and false. The plaintiff has now to prove that the statement was damaging, false and also actuated by malice. If the statement was published for the fun of the thing, or for profit, or simply because it was interesting, without any regard for whether it was true or false, the victim has no redress whatever.

Broadly, the case made by the American media in defence of this state of affairs, is that it is in the public interest overall, despite occasional and regrettable excesses and injustice to individuals. It is in the public interest because First Amendment rights constitute the most formidable barrier that exists anywhere against abuse of power. And they certainly do: against abuse of power by elected persons.

But how about abuse of power by non-elected persons, and specifically by those persons who make up the media? Here we are up against the latest form of a very old problem. To check the abuse of power, you have to be able to wield power yourself - as the American media now abundantly do. And who is then to prevent you from abusing the power you have acquired, in the course of checking abuses by others? It is the old question that Imperial Rome died of failing to answer: who will guard the guards?

In any case, the infotainment will not go away in 1994. 'Whitewater' is looming in the wings, the biggest potential scandal since Watergate, and potentially destructive of the Clinton presidency. I hope to write about that another day.

Just for today, I salute the honourable withdrawal of Admiral Inman. It is a salutary warning against the deterioration of the political environment in America through the interpretation and exploitation of the First Amendment.

(Photograph omitted)