Right to know: opening Pandora's box?

Saturday 20 October, 3.30pm until 5.00pm, Conservatory

From MPs to CEOs, political activists to journalists, it seems there is one thing they are happy to agree upon: the importance of being transparent. It doesn’t seem to matter what the particular issue involves: ever-greater transparency always seems to be part of the solution. Financial crisis? Make bankers’ earnings public. So virtuous is being transparent considered today, that the most high-profile anti-corruption organisation in the world is called… Transparency International. Many companies and organisations certainly want to let it all hang out: annual reports are now brimful with facts and figures. And it seems the government itself has embraced transparency too, with its plan to ‘proactively publish data’, including business plans, financial transactions and even lunch dates. But has this obsession with transparency, this insatiable right to know, gone too far? Is transparency necessarily a good thing?

In public, the vast majority of organisations and individuals claim to be enthusiastic about freedom of information laws. But in private, these laws are often experienced as an obstacle to be overcome. Little wonder many institutions employ whole departments of staff to cope with endless FOI requests, often from journalists fishing for stories, and sometimes from snoopers keen to gather dirt on opponents. Tony Blair, the prime minister responsible for pushing through the FOI legislation, was moved to declare it a ‘dangerous’ mistake. Current prime minister David Cameron has claimed it ‘furs up’ the arteries of government. And other organisations, such as banks or the NHS, now fear their duty to keep clients’ or patients’ transactions private will be compromised.

So is a cult of transparency causing as many problems as its advocates claim it solves? Critics argue that informal exchanges are inhibited: people have to be always on their guard, wary of giving an honest opinion. Who dares to try out outlandish ideas in a meeting, if the minutes might become front-page news? Others argue the culture of transparency may actually encourage more secrecy: ‘Text me instead of emailing’; ‘Phone me and I’ll tell you off the record’. Moreover, is the act of making decisions ‘behind closed doors’ really such a bad thing? After all, do we not value confidentiality when it comes to our own bank statements and our medical records? Has the ‘right to know’ reinvigorated the public understanding of how society really works, or simply ‘furred up the arteries’ of organisations and government? Or will transparency, the right to know, help to restore trust and accountability in society?

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Stephen Barber
group managing director & head of group communications, Pictet & Cie

Professor Roger Graef
CEO, Films of Record; award-winning filmmaker, including the Bafta winning Police series, Police 2001, Turning the Screws, and The Secret Policeman's Ball; visiting professor, Mannheim Centre for Criminology, LSE

Andrew Keen
entrepreneur; founder, Audiocafe.com; author, Digital Vertigo: how today's online social revolution is dividing, diminishing, and disorienting us

Kirk Leech
interim director, European Animal Research Campaign Centre; government affairs, Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry

Gilly Lord
partner, assurance practice, PwC

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive

Produced by
Dr Tim Black editor, Spiked Review
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
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