Keep your redactions. We want the whole truth

These Byzantine structures are riddled with secrecy, privilege, careerism, intrigue...

Related Topics

Despite its Japanese setting, Gilbert and Sullivan's The 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 W S 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 is 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 such as 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 had 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 Roman 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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Children of a bygone era  

Kids these days aren't what they used to be — they're a lot better. So why the fuss?

Archie Bland
A suited man eyes up the moral calibre of a burlesque troupe  

Be they burlesque dancers or arms dealers, a bank has no business judging the morality of its clients

John Walsh
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star