Watergate revelation a timely reminder of gains

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 June, 2005, 12:00am

If ever there was a valuable lesson for governments of the day, it is the Watergate scandal. In so many ways, the events 33 years ago this month that led to the downfall of an American president set the rules for how democratically elected officials should act.

Unfortunately, judging by the closed-door approach administrations are increasingly adopting, the clock is being turned back to before the now-infamous June 17, 1972, burglary at Washington's Watergate complex.

Before then, politicians seemed beyond reproach. They spoke to the media only when they felt like it and interacted with their constituents the most at election time. Officialdom was at arm's length from the populace.

Then came the night that two journalists from The Washington Post newspaper were told to check out a report of a break-in at the offices of the opposition Democratic Party in the Watergate building. Their investigation unearthed a web of corruption that resulted 26 months later in the resignation of the late president Richard Nixon.

But while the reporters were hailed for their work, the high-ranking official nicknamed Deep Throat who fed them clues was viewed as either a hero or villain, depending which political camp was making the assessment. This week, the whistle-blower revealed himself to be former FBI deputy director Mark Felt.

Whether Mr Felt, now 91, should have revealed top-level wrong-doing in the way he did is a moot point compared to the wider implications of his actions.

Foremost was the opening up of government as never before, with officials becoming accountable to taxpayers. Press conferences at which journalists were able to have their questions answered became a necessity, rather than a rarity. Greater access was given to documents and records.

Leaders' personal lives also became a matter for public scrutiny. The role of the media as a vital element of democratic checks and balances was significantly strengthened. Journalists became champions of freedom and were granted unprecedented access to government.

The new watchword was transparency - the goal that governments would strive for to ensure that there could never be another Watergate.

Those ideals have for some time been under threat around the world. Senior officials of US President George W. Bush's administration, for example, rarely give press conferences at which journalists can query their decisions.

Nor is the media as inquiring of officialdom as it once was. The power won has been eroded by profit-hungry proprietors eager not to stir trouble so that their interests can be protected.

Mr Felt's revelation is a timely reminder of the gains created by Watergate. For the sake of democracy, they must not be taken away or lost.