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What would Nanki-Poo have made of the Government’s modified transparency

2013 March 11
by Paul Vallely

Despite its Japanese setting, Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado is shot through with lines which could only be about England. “Modified rapture,” the wandering minstrel Nanki-Poo cries in a line dripping with Gilbert’s silvery-light Edwardian self-deprecation. The joke is that there is, of course, something absolute about rapture. Modification sits as well with it as does the idea that you can be almost pregnant or a little bit bankrupt.

In Britain nowadays there is talk everywhere of the need for openness and transparency.  Yet modified transparency is all that is on offer. Those in power pay lip service to openness but their ventriloquist lips open only so far.

It is tempting to wonder what the quizzical Gilbert might have made of a National Health Service in which a manager is sacked for prioritising emergency care over routine ops – and then is gagged with a confidentiality clause as part of a hush-money pay-off.  Or a BBC which promises to publish all the Pollard review documents into the suppression of Newsnight’s investigation into Jimmy Savile – and then blacks out damning parts of the testimony.

Or he might have arched an eyebrow at the coyness of the confessing cardinal, Keith O’Brien. Accused of making homosexual advances to his own priests, Scotland’s senior Roman Catholic abandoned his usual bold and brutalist rhetoric in favour of fey references to “times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me”.

It was Gilbert who first coined the phrase “let the punishment fit the crime”. He would have seen none of that in the decision by Liberal Democrat MPs to back Tory proposals for secret courts to hear cases that touch on sensitive issues of national security. And this from politicians whose party conference previously voted against a system in which the defendant is not allowed to be present – nor even to know the specific accusations being made against them. Secret courts will create a set of rules to which only the state has access. A secret law is no law at all. “The Law has no kind of fault or flaw, And I, my Lords, embody the Law,” as Gilbert had his Lord Chancellor opine in Iolanthe.

And how Gilbertian parody would relish the paradox of hearing that the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war has now been given unprecedented access to private conversations between Tony Blair and George Bush – but may not be allowed to quote them in a report because of repeated attempts in Whitehall to refuse the inquiry permission to print what it has read.

It’s transparency only up to a point, it seems. Yet the point about transparency is that it should be for others to make decisions on it. The Pollard documents had to be censored, a BBC mandarin told me privately, because much of the most scathing stuff came from people like Jeremy Paxman who was “just grandstanding about a complex management situation he would never have been able to manage himself”.   Maybe so. But if we had all the evidence we could make up our own minds, thanks very much.

Then we’ve had the NHS boss Sir David Nicholson accepting that he was “part” of a leadership that “lost its focus” so that hundreds of patients died unnecessarily in Stafford Hospital. But then he told us he’d learnt his lesson and decided he was now the best person to ensure such a scandal did not happen again. It is, surely, for us not him to make that judgement.

Transparency can be a pretence too, as with Cardinal O’Brien’s partial confession. It apes contrition but between the lines it reveals that, right to the last minute, he had hoped that he could bluff it out by dismissing as “anonymous” the accusers whose testimony showed they had struggled with blighted lives for decades longer than the departed cardinal must now endure.

Modified transparency is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. It is what allows the Whitehall defenders of the Iraq war to disclose all manner of damning documents and then resist their wider publication. So that the general public may never know that Downing Street was told by MI6 that the US secret service was “fixing” the facts to fit George Bush’s antipathy to Saddam Hussein – or that his Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill, once disclosed that an attack on Iraq had been planned as long back as Bush’s inauguration as US president.

What unites all this – from Iraq to the secret courts and the Catholic Church to the BBC – is what the gagged NHS administrator described as “a culture of fear, a culture of oppression of information that’s either going to embarrass a civil servant or a minister”. Or a cardinal. Or a BBC high-up.

In all these byzantine organisations – riddled with hierarchy, secrecy, privilege, careerism, intrigue, personal jealousies and political powerplay – one Machiavellian principle dominates. It is the notion that elites know better than the rest of us.

I think we should be the judge of that.

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