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'Soft' secrecy in the media age

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This post is part of the Unisys forum on the future of secrecy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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12 March 2012 11:39


This post is part of the Unisys forum on the future of secrecy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and was Chair of the Government 2.0 Task Force.

I recently took my son to the stage play (pictured) of the TV show Yes, Prime Minister. One could predict the kind of plot that would ensue and ensue it did. The Prime Minister and his minions manoeuvre for advantage, navigate a range of dilemmas and eventually a resolution is arrived at. Life goes on happily enough for the characters and we appreciate the bon mot that Wikiquote tells us is wrongly attributed to Bismarck: 'Laws are like sausages — it is best not to see them being made'.

But the decades have made a huge difference in the sensibility of the new production, which is written by the original authors of the TV series.

The series ran through most of the 1980s, a period that contained its share of tumult, from the destruction of union militancy to the Falkland's War. The series reflected bastardry enough. But somehow the dramas were genteel, reflecting battles between those privileged enough to be in the system. Waste in government continued, powerful people and time-servers were protected when they should have been exposed and dealt with. But one could be forgiven for thinking, at the end of an episode, 'it was ever thus'.

Twenty years on, as the moral dilemmas piled up on stage, the governors conspired against the governed. The PM and his advisers address their common problems as insiders in the showbiz that is government by framing an innocent person at the bottom of the social pile (an immigrant). The fall guy was to be taken into custody as a suspected terrorist and kept there, incommunicado, for up to a year, after which he might be deported or his incarceration repeated.

This change in 'Yes, Prime Minister' points to a revolution our society has undergone in the way we 'do' government.

Secrecy was always the default presumption before the days of freedom of information and the craze for 'transparency'. Today we are into our second generation of freedom of information (FoI) legislation, which seeks to move the default more fully to a state where information is presumptively open (subject to exceptions where the case can be made) rather than the converse.

Yet while these changes have been taking place – through the first and now the second wave of FoI reforms – government is increasingly 'performed'. This has huge implications for the incentives operating within the system.

Today, departments assist ministers 'performing' government by putting their case, trouncing the opposition or launching policies. In virtually all of this, in its role of supporting the government, departments of state will gild the lily and deploy those stalwarts of managerialist euphemism. Arrangements will be 'enhanced' and 'improved'. 'Best practices' will be adopted which, we will be told, will make us more competitive, whatever more sober reflection might suggest. This will frequently extend to the routine petty deceptions involved in 'repackaging' previously announced policy and the spinning of details which might otherwise invite scepticism.

And the deceptions may be perpetrated through reticence, and may not be petty. Where an officer is in possession of information of considerable import – as in the case of the defence forces during the 'children overboard' episode – they will be expected to be complicit with the suppression of that information. (Though 'honesty' gets a guernsey from time to time, I've yet to see 'candour' chosen in any government agency's charter of 'corporate values'.)

So routine is this today that its absence is noticed immediately and usually punished. As it was when Treasurer John Kerin replied 'Your guess is as good as mine' when pressed in the depths of the 1990 recession to divine when the economy would recover. As it was when Gareth Evans conceded that a promise not to raise taxes was nevertheless not a promise not to freeze each and every detail of the tax maze – only to have this reported as a front page lead headed 'Gareth Gaffe'. (These anecdotes are drawn, I hope accurately, from personal memory.)

In an environment like this, where the prime minister stumbling on his way onto a podium can dominate the news and so have its own effect on the trajectory of an election, it has become entirely normal for departments to be involved 24/7 in the process not just of avoiding embarrassment for their minister but of actively 'managing' all aspects of everything they do that has any chance of being or becoming public.

At the same time, those whose job it is to hold them to account are, for the most part, seeking to misrepresent them for the purposes of entertainment and ratings (in the case of the media) or political combat (in the case of opposing politicians).

Consider either a public servant or a department of state in this environment. What can they say with confidence that will not cause difficulty or embarrassment? This can include the most basic factual matter. If, for instance, they indicate that the department began work on some policy at a particular time, might it not be possible for some reporter or opposition politician to juxtapose this in some invidious way with what might have been done, or with something a politician has said? In such an environment all the incentives point to reticence – to silence, or to put it more starkly, secrecy as the default.

Often, media management will aim for what might be called 'soft secrecy', which is to say, a state of affairs where a set of facts are acknowledged, but the public and their informants, the media, are resolutely blocked from providing independent detail.

Thus there is public debate about 'enhanced interrogation techniques' but no reporting from Guantanamo, not to mention the sites of 'extraordinary rendition'. Thus, though our government boasted about its tough treatment of asylum seekers in the 2001 election to considerable electoral effect, it was always understood that the cameras must not get too close lest our media be awash with 'human interest' stories about the incarcerated. Though there were strict government instructions to prevent the media from getting close to asylum seekers in that case, very often it is quite unnecessary for politicians to issue any such instructions for such discretion to obtain.

How might we make this situation better? Let the conversation begin.

Photo courtesy of Yes, Prime Minister.

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