The truth about doping on live TV?
In Britain, disasters and scandals are aired in public hearings – what about Finland?
By Anssi Miettinen
It would certainly be intriguing to see Finnish cross-country skiers and influential figures in competitive skiing from the past being marched, one after the other, before an independent truth commission.
They could be asked any questions at all, and they would be sworn to speak the truth. And this could even be watched on live television.
Or perhaps an independent board of judges and economists could be given the chance to grill the economic policy decision-makers of the great recession of the 1990s.
This sort of thing happens all the time in Britain.
Right now there are hearings going on about journalistic ethics and the war in Iraq.
Those "in the dock" have included former Prime Minister Tony Blair and media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
In the past week, Child Affairs Ombudsman Maria Kaisa Aula called for a British-style extensive and independent investigation into the events which led to the death of an eight-year-old girl (see links).
Aula feels that a simple criminal investigation and trial will not be enough. With the help of an extensive investigation it would be possible to assess more broadly how officials operate and collaborate.
In Britain as well, child welfare has undergone reforms on the basis of just such a public inquiry in the early part of the new century.
The work began after the death of a child who was under the care of child protective services.
Often the work of a British truth commission is launched in the wake of a shocking event or massive accident.
The board is often headed by a legal expert who studies the events, the reasons why they happened, and what can be learned from the mishap.
The activities of politicians and officials often come under scrutiny in the inquiries.
The truth commissions do not have the authority to mete out punishments, but in their final reports they can point fingers at guilty parties.
The public tribunals are something of a combination of a court trial and an ordinary inquiry.
"The difference between a public inquiry and an ordinary inquiry is that the people giving testimony do so under oath", says Panu Minkkinen, Professor of Law at the University of Helsinki, who worked in Britain for ten years.
Public tribunal processes sometimes take several years. They have been criticised as costly.
For instance, the final report on "Bloody Sunday", a turning point in the conflict in Northern Ireland in 1972 when police shot 14 men, came out in 2010.
The inquiry took 12 years, 900 witnesses were heard, and statements were taken from 2,500 people. The whole process cost EUR 200 million.
Panu Minkkinen is not enthusiastic about the idea of bringing the British system into Finland.
"It is a hybrid, a strange mixture. In Finland we either have a court trial or we don’t. In Britain they mix it up a bit. It feels like an ad hoc court with possibilities for abuse. If the issue is sufficiently bad, it needs to be handled through the regular legal process."
But aren’t there significant series of events that would be useful to know more about for the sake of the public good?
"Any minister can set up a group to make inquiries, as is the case with child protection now. We already have our home-grown means. As a general rule I would say that we just need to learn to use them in a more efficient manner."
Inquiry teams have been set up in Finland to investigate shocking issues.
Fairly often they have been headed by Lauri Tarasti, who has investigated events ranging from an election funding scandal to the Lahti doping case.
"We heard from all the sides that came to be heard. Some came, some did not. It was based on everyone saying what they said", Tarasti says about his doping inquiry.
So he did not have any powerful means at his disposal that he could have used to squeeze the truth out of the skiing people.
Nevertheless, he is not demanding putting people under oath, or the holding of public interrogations.
Tarasti points out that in Britain, legislation focuses more on individual cases. That is why there is a tendency to have separate inquiries when an abnormal event requires it.
Professor Panu Minkkinen sees considerable cultural differences.
In Finland officials are anonymous. It is unlikely that we will ever know the names of the social workers who misjudged the case of the 8-year-old girl, while in Britain, the names of decision-makers who have erred are dragged out and made public.
Public truth commissions are most suitable for this task.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 9.9.2012
Previously in HS International Edition:
Sports doping: Medicines Agency asks pharmaceutical company for more information on ties with Ski Federation (3.9.2012)
Time for open talk about doping (4.9.2012)
homicide of 8-year-old sparks police investigation into possible negligence by child welfare officials (3.9.2012)
ANSSI MIETTINEN / Helsingin Sanomat