Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile isn’t sure about his own Government’s media laws. Neither is Senator Alan Eggleston, the chair of the committee that will examine the bills. As well they should be. In dealing with media, they are dealing with powers much greater than they are.

How do we know? Back in 2004, John McMillan and Pablo Zoido of the Stanford Graduate School of Business published an ingenious study of the checks and balances that underpin democracy. The abstract says it all:

Which of the democratic checks and balances – opposition parties, the judiciary, a free press – is the most critical? Peru has the full set of democratic institutions. In the 1990s, the secret-police chief Vladimiro Montesinos systematically undermined them all with bribes. We quantify the checks using the bribe prices. Montesinos paid television-channel owners about 100 times what he paid judges and politicians. One single television channel’s bribe was four times larger than the total of the opposition politicians’ bribes. By revealed preference, the strongest check on the government’s power was the news media.

Montesinos kept meticulous records. He required recipients of his bribes to sign receipts. He routinely videotaped himself doling out funds and explaining exactly what he expected of those whom he paid.

McMillan and Zoida used the records to compile what they described as price list for bribery – a yardstick that could be used to measure the strength of the democratic countervailing forces that Montesinos was undermining.

They discovered a clear hierarchy of power. A politician, for example, was worth slightly more than a judge. But the most powerful force of all was an owner of a television station. They commanded bribes about a hundred times higher than a politician’s.

“Each channel takes $2 million monthly, but it is the only way,” Montesinos told one of his henchmen. “That is why we have won, because we have sacrificed in this way.”

Why did television matter so much? Montesinos explained on tape: “What do I care about El Comercio? They have an 80,000 print run. 80,000 newspapers is sh-t. What worries me is Channel Four… It reaches two million people.”

In the end, a small independent television station, one that Montesinos had never bribed, aired the tape that brought the regime down.

The Senate committee is due to report back on 6 October. They should look at McMillan and Zoida as part of their deliberations. If they’re not going to take public interest into account, they should consider their own self interest – and if they want to give more powers to forces already up to 100 times stronger than they are.