Letting it get out

Bernard Williams

  • Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation by Sissela Bok
    Oxford, 332 pp, £12.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 19 217733 8
  • The Secrets File: The Case for Freedom of Information in Britain Today edited by Des Wilson, foreword by David Steel
    Heinemann, 166 pp, £4.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 435 83939 X

It is often said that the British are obsessively interested in secrecy. It is less often said how deep and peculiar this obsession is, and how much more there is to it than the well-known fact that British authorities are exceptionally secretive. Our interest is in secrecy as much as in secrets: it is the process, the practices and irregularities of keeping and revealing secrets, that concerns us. This interest in process rather than in content, together with the unconstructive and unfruitful nature of the obsession as it is regularly displayed, for instance, in the Sunday papers’ excitement about spies, makes it like an attachment to pornography. It is typical of it that we find it hard to distinguish fantasy and reality. The unceasing scratching at past espionage is obscene partly because fact and fiction have merged: Blunt, Bill Haydon, Smiley, Peter Wright seem by now all at the same distance.

This obsession with espionage is that of investigators, of unmaskers. Its motives even with regard to secrecy are complex. It is obvious that the need to unmask and then unmask again assorted Cambridge spies is concerned with more than the secrecy of the information they gave away. It is fascinated by their secrecy as spies; by sexual secrecy; and by the previously hidden life of a ruling class that excluded the rest of society from its secret garden. This rage of discovery is equalled by the obsession of people in charge to keep things secret, not simply with regard to espionage – something that is hardly surprising, particularly if one’s spies were also other people’s spies – but in all areas of government. As Sissela Bok’s book illustrates, it is a deep and nearly universal desire of those in power; Des Wilson’s collection of articles powerfully documents and eloquently attacks its special intensity in this country, the most officially secretive among democracies.

Sissela Bok’s thoughtful book is not concerned only with official secrets, though they get a lot of attention. She discusses such things as the relations between secrecy, intimacy and privacy; there are many interesting observations, such as that the German word for ‘secret’ is directly connected with the word for ‘home’ (it is one of the words concentrated into the acronym Gestapo). She discusses self-deception, confession, professional confidentiality, police and journalistic investigations. She has some notable horror stories. There was the Holy Vehm, a secret vigilante organisation which was founded in mid-13th-century Westphalia and lasted until Napoleon. There is the chemical company which, having shipped the wrong additives to feed-grain co-operatives in Michigan, as a result of which many people had their health ruined and very many cattle died, threatened to sack any employee who helped investigators. For those who think academics more virtuous than business, there is the story of the social science experiment conducted in Pittsburgh in the Sixties, in which the investigator left schoolchildren alone with the spilled contents of a handbag in order to investigate their disposition to steal.

The book shares with Sissela Bok’s earlier work on lying a disposition to give an even-handed and very judicious appraisal of the ethical issues raised by these questions of public and private truth. It is not always quite clear, however, who she is addressing. On gossip, for instance – an admirable subject in this connection – her sensible remarks take a slightly severe tone, but I doubt whether she expects to have much effect on the frivolous gossipers she condemns, while the others do not need to be told. Not that she is too severe. She is properly unreceptive to the extreme strictures of Kierkegaard, and to Heidegger, who wrote with all his characteristic deftness: ‘by its very nature, idle talk is a closing-off, since to go back to the ground of what is talked about is something which it leaves undone.’ With this kind of thing, she rightly says, ‘they erase differences and deny meaning in their own way.’

Sometimes her moral discussion speaks fairly directly to people who have to decide what to do in relation to the institutions of secrecy. Her chapter on ‘whistle-blowing’, one of her best, seems addressed to potential whistle-blowers, and asks what considerations you should have in mind if you are deciding whether to go public with the iniquities of the organisation that employs you. On other questions, she is concerned with what rules or practices would best serve the wide range of interests and rights involved. She rightly says that while there are of course many reasons why information should not be divulged, there are no reasons at all why the general considerations that govern official or professional practice should not themselves be public. Living in a society with a constitution, a Supreme Court, and many articulate lawyers, she is always conscious of these ideals of social transparency; in Britain, she would find the very idea of discussing the subject fairly unfamiliar, except at the level of evasive platitudes.

The deformations, in the USA as here, are not all in the same direction. If too much is hidden, too much is searched for, and often the wrong kinds of thing. The public’s ‘right to know’ is often called up in this connection: Sissela Bok is sharply critical of the way in which this idea is constantly misused. If someone has a right to know a particular thing, she argues, someone else must have a duty to disclose it. But often when the right to know is invoked, as the paparazzi swarm in the trees or reporters effectively prevent the negotiations they are supposed to report, it is perfectly obvious that no one has a duty to disclose – it is merely that they may be forced to.

The claim of a right to know is often bogus, but it is not always so. It does apply if the information you want to know is information about yourself held by some public body. It also applies to a lot of information relevant to public decisions. The book that Des Wilson has edited, on behalf of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Britain, brings out, in a section on international comparisons, how remarkably far Britain is behind other countries in these respects: behind in legislation, and still further behind in the degree to which it is implemented. According to the claims made here, even France, that notorious monument of unaccountable state power qualified only by the unco-operativeness of its citizens, is more liberal in these matters than Britain.

Different problems are raised by freedom of information in the two kinds of case. In the individual case, there are some issues of protecting the administrative process from cranks and fanatical complainants, and from the sort of publicity which means that no one can ever write down a frank opinion of an employee or candidate. Beyond that, it is a matter of making sure that information can be known to those whom it concerns and not to others, and this is not easy, particularly when – as these books point out – information is increasingly held by many interrelated agencies.

In the case of information about such things as decisions of government and reasons of state, and issues of policy and administration, there are wider questions about what can properly be demanded and for what reasons it may be withheld, and both these books sensibly discuss them. This includes areas of research such as environmental pollution, where (an article by Maurice Frankel in Wilson’s book makes clear) public bodies, as things are, can have not only the right, but even the duty, to conceal information which is directly relevant to public concerns, and indeed to nailing polluters. The Wilson book is appropriately the more combative of the two. It emphasises yet again the dire influence of Section Two of the Official Secrets Act, which can be applied to any official transaction of any kind. This unreasonable and oppressive provision has been repeatedly criticised by the most respectable authorities, and survives only because it is selectively and hypocritically applied – which does not stop its being applied with extreme ferocity, as it was to Sarah Tisdall. I did not know until I read this book that it passed through all its Commons readings and the Committee stage in just thirty minutes, during a war scare in 1911.

There is another set of problems, though, beyond the general issue of reducing official secretiveness, and beyond the details of what can reasonably be concealed. This is the question of how things are to be made known. In the personal cases, once more, it is not basically too hard: someone who wants to know should be able to go and find out, without too much trouble, expense or bureaucratic obstruction. But it is a different matter with the issues of public concern. When the public indeed has a right to know, who exactly has a right to do what? If there is to be freedom of information, whose freedom will it be? Neither of these books faces up to these questions.

The point was illustrated when Crossman’s diaries were published. In the dispute about their appearance, there was a good deal of talk about the right to know, but it mostly neglected the point that as a source of knowledge about political events, Dick Crossman’s testimony – even his testimony to himself – needed, to put it mildly, a good deal of interpretation. His individual and sometimes malign preoccupations provided no surrogate for a Cabinet Hansard. It can rightly be said that more information, if not about the discussions in last week’s Cabinet (supposing there still is a Cabinet), would lessen our dependence on the pre-emptive memoirs of rival ex-Cabinet Ministers: but then there is the question of who releases what, and, above all, of the style in which it is made generally available.

Much would be achieved if important information, which could be found by interested people with skills to make it known, were more available than it is. But the right to know will be fully operative only if the media – the means, as they are supposed to be – are able to convey knowledge. Very little of the British press is willing to do that. It is not so much that it is untruthful or inaccurate, although it certainly is. It is rather that most of it makes truths meaningless, by presenting them in an instantaneous, superficial and fragmented way that defeats understanding. The state of the press is as much a problem for freedom of information as official silence is: it is the problem of making genuine information possible. TV in Britain is a more responsible and helpful medium than most of the press, but because it is transitory it cannot do things that only writing can do. No one has found a substitute for the coherent press that now barely exists in Britain.

These books are right: here as elsewhere, modern government is either deeply dedicated, or lazily attached, to concealment, and it is damaging and dangerous and deplorable. But the reluctance to let things out which is natural to all authority is wonderfully encouraged by the spectacle of what happens in Britain when they are let out. Many serious interests are defeated by excessive official secrecy, but it is not made easier for officialdom to remember that fact when most of the press does not represent any serious interest, or show any concern to make anything understood. The public, in some matters, does have a right to know, but the press cannot claim that right for itself until it makes itself able to provide the public with knowledge.