What are the effects of government failure

The media failed in the Corona crisis - now we need the devil's lawyers elected by the people

Uncertainty, ignorance and fear of making mistakes lead the media in crises to stop criticizing those in power. This could be remedied by commissions of critics elected by the people, such as those already in place in Swiss communities.

Good politics and democracy require free, diverse and critical media. This is especially true in crisis situations. But during the Corona crisis, the media were uncritical of the government, reported one-sided and relied more on panic than on analysis. It didn't just happen in Switzerland. The media rallied behind governments almost everywhere, even where government failure was evident.

Why do quality media lose their critical faculties in crises? Some argue that due to the extreme pressure to save in the media, qualified employees are not only becoming increasingly scarce. They also wanted to switch to the growing state communications departments more and more often and feared that contributions critical of the government could reduce their chances.

Others believe that due to good personal relationships with government agencies, some media received advance information and then reported more benevolently. Thanks to their information advantage, the media involved appear more credible, which makes them even more valuable to the state.

These arguments do not explain why the media fail in times of crisis. There is always pressure to save. The hope for better jobs is general. And good personal relationships at best explain why a few media workers reported in a public service; if many received advance information, it would be practically worthless. The uncritical reporting must therefore be explained differently. We see it as the result of a fundamental system failure.

Systematic media failure

Quality media have to constantly redefine how they should report, weighing up three aspects: their time, their finances and their knowledge are scarce. To maintain their reputation, they want to avoid real and apparent mistakes. And they want to address as many media consumers as possible.

At the beginning of a crisis there is great uncertainty. Consumers' need for information is high, and reports on the crisis attract attention, no matter how loyal to or critical of the government. At the same time, the knowledge of the media is still low and the risk of errors high. The government can therefore easily attack contributions that are critical of the government and denounce real or alleged errors.

Government-friendly reports, on the other hand, are rarely attacked. This creates a self-reinforcing mechanism. The fewer reports that are critical of the government, the more concentrated the government's “barrage” hits the remaining critical contributions. And the more contributions are loyal to the government, the smaller the risk for their authors of being attacked by circles that are critical of the government.

Given the uncertainty that exists in crises, rational media workers therefore take over the communication of the governments; The longer they can then observe the government's crisis management, the easier it will be for them to voice criticism that is not easy to reject. However, quality media are subject to a consistency requirement, which is why they are only able to correct the systemic failure slowly: Anyone who has extolled government policy for months will find it difficult to criticize it afterwards.

Where is the devil's lawyer?

To remedy this system failure, a new form of competition of opinion is needed, a "balanced, partisan competition". Analogies make its relevance clear: In case law, not a person searches for "the truth" as impartially as possible.

Rather, in a competitive process, both the prosecution and the defense look extremely biased for the best possible arguments. On this basis, a judge who is as neutral as possible then determines what “the truth” is. Democracy and science also work in a similar way: parties and scientists are quite partial to the search for the best possible arguments for their political projects or their hypothesis, which are then judged by a kind of court: the people or the “scientific community”.

The competition in the media is usually reasonably balanced. In times of crisis, however, it is systematically distorted in favor of the government position. To rectify this, a new institution is needed that has long been tried and tested in the jurisprudence and in church processes of canonization: the lawyer for the other side in the form of public defenders and the advocatus diaboli.

If defendants are unable to defend themselves properly - be it because they lack the money or because potential defense lawyers fear being morally put in the corner of the perpetrator - the state will provide them with a public defender. He is compensated from general means and not ostracized just because he accepts this task.

In church canonization processes, the advocatus diaboli measures himself in a certain sense against God with impunity when he formulates doubts about those who were canonized afterwards. Both institutions serve the same purpose: It is a matter of serious intent and to the best of our knowledge and belief, looking for all conceivable arguments in order to arrive at more appropriate, better decisions.

«Panel for Government Criticism»

The institution of the advocatus diaboli would be necessary in the media - at least in times of crisis. There are several options for establishing such an institution.

Individual media can create vessels with the clear mandate to critically question the government strategy. In some cases, this already exists through special "lateral thinker columns". But that's not enough. Because criticism of the government is a typical public good in times of crisis. The costs are incurred by the individual medium, but the benefits are spread across society. Accordingly, the individual media have neither the incentives nor the resources to play the public defender role to an appropriate extent. One possibility would be media awards for particularly good work as a diabolic advocate.

Because criticism is a public good in times of crisis, a specialized, independent institution with a broader funding base is required. The general public should appoint one or more agencies to express appropriate criticism of the government in the event of a crisis. An already existing «body for criticism of the government» are the audit offices.

Your task is to examine the decisions and behavior of governments, administrations and even parliaments for their financial impact, to criticize them and also to propose improvements. Switzerland has excellent and globally unique experience with independent commissions in the financial sector.

In municipalities with municipal assemblies, citizens not only elect a government, but also, depending on the canton, an audit or business audit commission whose sole task is to comment on and criticize the government's proposals. Research with our colleague Mark Schelker shows how fruitful the effects of these commissions on financial policy are.

We therefore propose transferring the concept of such independent, popularly elected commissions to crisis policy. These bodies would have ideal incentives to formulate the best possible arguments against state decisions. Thanks to public funding, they would also have the resources to develop in-depth criticism.

Eliminate defects in good time

Thanks to the explicit mandate to criticize, the members of the criticism commission do not have to fear being portrayed as immoral or merely exploiting the situation for the benefit of their own goals. And because the members are explicitly elected for the function of criticism and mostly want to be re-elected in this function, they have, in contrast to opposition parties, strong incentives to accompany the work of the government in a constructive and critical manner and to develop proposed solutions.

Criticism from specially commissioned criticism commissions works through four channels. First, the government can take up the proposals directly. Second, it provides information to the media and thus to the population. Third, it makes it easier for other actors to develop proposals. Fourth, the government will try to anticipate the criticism as much as possible and correct the most obvious shortcomings in its policy in good time.

In the case of the Corona crisis, for example, the criticism committee would have recommended the government early on to collect and evaluate the most important data better as a basis for decision-making. These include the unreported number of infections, previous illnesses and thus the years of life lost by victims of death and serious illness, as well as the level of immunity of those who have recovered from antibodies and cellular defenses.

Because for the government the criticism of a committee elected by the people would be much more weighty than that of individual scientists, it would have pursued a sensible data policy in anticipation of this criticism, so that the criticism committee could have said for some areas: The government has done solid work, so that proposals for change are superfluous.

* Reiner Eichenberger is Professor of Theory of Financial and Economic Policy at the University of Freiburg i. Ü. and Research Director of Crema - Center of Research in Economics, Management and the Arts. David Stadelmann is Professor of Economics at the University of Bayreuth, Research Fellow at Crema, Fellow at Best (Australia) and member of the Walter Eucken Institute (Germany).