Secrecy: the drug you slowly become addicted to

by The Editor

ARTICLE: The Protection of State Information Bill, perhaps now better known as ‘the secrecy bill’, has put transparency front and centre in our public discourse. I have, in the article below, tried to explain in abstract why the principle of transparency is important to a democracy and, at the other end of the spectrum, why secrecy is a danger to it. Of the many reasons, perhaps the most subtle is secrecy’s insidious effect. Once given a foothold, it gradually tightens its grip, until, before you know it, it has squeezed the very life out of a democratic order.

Secrecy: the drug you slowly become addicted to

By: Gareth van Onselen

18 April 2012

A healthy society is an open society. Information flows freely and is easily accessible. Public decisions are explained. Ideas are contested and debate embraced. Honesty prevails. And an attitude exists whereby it is understood that knowledge, in all its shapes and forms, is the necessary foundation on which informed decisions are best made, and thus promoted accordingly. These are some of democracy’s most important tenets.

An unhealthy society is a closed society. Information is controlled and limited. Public and private decisions are dictated and enforced. Debate is suppressed. Distrust and deviousness dominate. And the belief exists that knowledge is a threat, and that the ‘correct decisions’ are best made by ‘appropriately designated people’, able to discern the ‘right choices’ on the behalf of others. So information is manipulated and censored. These are tyranny’s calling cards.

Transparency is the principle that underpins the former, and freedom is its consequence. Secrecy is the fear that fuels the latter, and control is its affect. Thus, to champion transparency is to advance freedom; to augment secrecy is to enforce control. In turn, in strong democracies freedom and transparency are in the ascendency; in weak democracies, secrecy and control are pre-eminent.

It is perfectly true that not all information can be made available to everyone all the time and that, practically, transparency cannot be absolute. But one should never understand transparency that way; for it is secrecy’s perspective, and to view it through those eyes is to invert its intent.

Transparency should be a society’s default position, from which any exception must be accompanied by exceptional circumstances; and any justification, water tight. In public life, secrecy should never be permitted for secrecy’s sake. Its use should be regulated by the harm principle and, even then, it is necessary to understand that, often, harm is more helpful than ignorance.

This is easier said than done, for there are few threats more permanent and more infectious than secrecy. Constantly, relentlessly, it attempts to affect any society’s democratic culture and shift its emphasis away from the light and towards the dark, away from freedom and towards control.

Slowly, deliberately secrecy desires to warp transparency to its own image, and one underestimates its effectiveness at one’s peril. Secrecy distorts perception like the drug you slowly become addicted to: at first its effects are marked, but with time and complacency it quickly becomes the way of things. To indulge it is to surrender a society victim to its own anxieties, and in order that it might cope, the first thing it will do is go into denial.

Secrecy is able to act in such an insidious fashion because it has at its heart a powerful emotional impulse: fear, and the belief that human beings are in some way incapable and their behaviour best managed and modulated by those in control (as opposed to people themselves). But this is to misunderstand the value of failure, because it holds within it the key to progress. And being self-aware is where that process starts.

To embrace freedom and transparency is to embrace the possibility of disappointment, in the conduct of human beings and the quality of their ideas; for transparency ensures any shortcoming becomes public knowledge and any misconduct is thoroughly interrogated. But that risk is not a reason to resort to control. If anything, it should be the source of pride – not in the failure itself, but in the fact that one is willing to recognise it for what it is, with a view to advancement and betterment.

Competition and progress (of ideas and of public discourse) rely on trial and error to establish best practice. Just as secrecy denudes competition of its purpose, so control outlaws trial and error, and both limit the public mind. Those are the necessary conditions not for democracy to flourish, but for autocracy to bring human development to a full and complete stop.

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