Putting out fires

State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss should conduct himself impartially, not try to score popularity points by broadcasting his own sentiments.

Carmel Fire 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Nir Elias)
Carmel Fire 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Nir Elias)
A layman’s common sense would automatically balk at a scenario wherein a judge in a high-profile trial approaches the victim’s relatives and assures them that he will mete out harsh justice to the defendant.
Even if public opinion exudes sympathy for the injured party, the presiding judge is still expected to conduct himself impartially and not try to score popularity points by broadcasting his own sentiments. Some boundaries simply cannot be crossed in an honorable system.
Yet this is precisely what much-respected State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss has done in the Mount Carmel fire case. According to persistent reports from divergent sources, he met with the bereaved families and promised he would settle accounts with those responsible, he said, for their loss. The casualties’ kin assert that Lindenstrauss told them he aims to pin personal blame on two ministers – Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Interior Minister Eli Yishai.
This teasing expectation in itself fuelled furious media speculation, as did with a series of tantalizing leaks from the report itself. To be sure, during Lindenstrauss’s tenure we were occasionally allowed previews of coming attractions.
There is no denying this comptroller’s fondness for publicity. Over time, the number of sneak-peeks increased, as did their scope and depth.
The immediate detriment is that the state comptroller seems to be playing to the gallery. This is something that should be avoided as assiduously as the appearance of a judge pandering to the emotions of the aggrieved family or the spectators in his courtroom.
The comptroller in a democracy is charged with seeking the truth, pointing to failures and recommending ways to correct shortcomings. If the comptroller slips into populism, all trust in his objectivity and integrity would be lost. This would crucially undermine his effectiveness.
None of us want such a crisis of confidence, especially as Lindenstrauss is one of the most no-nonsense and proactive comptrollers we have had for a long time. He has won the admiration of many Israelis, and not for naught. It would be a great shame if toward the end of his term he tarnished his own impressive record and wasted some of the immense credit he had justly earned.
There’s logic behind the customs and traditions that accompany the release of each Comptroller’s Report.
These reports are rightfully compiled away from the limelight, with plodding, meticulous methodology to ensure utmost fairness and to preclude even so much as the semblance of preconception and ulterior motives.
Keeping a dignified quiet is an integral, indeed an indispensable part of the substance. Anything else detracts from the gravitas of the end-product.
Safeguarding confidentiality has always been a ground rule. When newspapers receive the bulky detail-laden reports for early perusal, they undertake to disclose nothing until the embargo on publication is lifted. Thus, for the comptroller’s office to breach rules it sets so strenuously for others is doubly troubling.
Inviting conjecture and innuendo while work is ongoing contaminates the investigation. Making headlines and grabbing ratings may constitute the essence of media competitiveness but these are precisely the temptations that the comptroller and his staff must resist uncompromisingly.
Otherwise, avoidable suspicions will inevitably arise when individual ministers are singled out. The comptroller, after all, is entrusted with the task of bringing ills to light but he cannot determine whether or not a given minister is fit for office. That’s for the prime minister or the electorate to decide.
Monday morning quarterbacking and decrying lack of clairvoyance are particularly problematic. Yishai couldn’t pad his own budget and Steinitz, charged with steering the entire economy though particularly stormy seas, couldn’t print money.
This underscores why form is no less important than content. Where culpability isn’t simplistically self-evident, the content of a Comptroller’s Report might be controversial.
Flawed form only adds ammunition to those predisposed to reject controversial content.
The state comptroller and his personnel damage the credibility of their own report when they disrespect conventions that require discretion and propriety. This is not only true of the Carmel fire probe but of all probes – regardless of how hot the issues or what the conclusions may be.