Leading article: The paradox of transparency

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The Independent Online

This newspaper has always been in favour of what the Prime Minister last week called the principle of maximum transparency. We take the view that British democracy is best served by openness. We welcomed the changes made by the Labour Government even as we watched with a puzzlement tinged with horror as every opening of the shutters was followed by an attempt to close the curtains. Yes, it was absolutely right to require parties to disclose the sources of their funding, and it was Tony Blair's attempt to conceal the identities of the lenders that paid for the 2005 campaign that helped to bring him down. And, yes, the Freedom of Information Act was a triumph, although its implementation was long delayed and elements in the Government fought a rearguard action against its application to the House of Commons itself.

Maximum transparency has also been our guiding principle in foreign affairs. As Clive Stafford Smith writes today, greater openness would have made it harder for British spies to have connived in America's morally repugnant and counterproductive post-9/11 policy of torture.

For a newspaper founded just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we hold this truth to be self-evident: that the more that citizens know, and the more freely they are able to communicate with each other and with citizens of other nations, the less secure tyrannies will be. We cannot know whether the obviously rigged elections in Iran will catalyse the collapse of the Khameini-Ahmadinejad regime. Robert Fisk gives his assessment at the end of another tumultuous week. But the internet has allowed the spread of information and opinion as never before throughout Iran, and there can be no doubt that this openness created the most dangerous moment to the regime since the revolution in 1979.

Yet the situation in Iran exposes an ambiguity in the principle of transparency: the power of the Twitter revolution lies as much in the anonymity that the internet affords its users as in the freedom of communication. For anyone who thought that Iran was an imperfect but genuine democracy, the television pictures of police and paramilitaries beating demonstrators should have been educational. This is plainly a country ruled by fear. What is important is that transparency applies to a country's leaders, rather than to its led. The more sunlight that falls on the way the votes were counted, and by whom, the better for the future of Iran.

The paradox of openness is that democracy sometimes requires secrecy – but on the part of the ruled, not the rulers. To take an apparently random example, some people have criticised, without thinking too deeply, tomorrow's new system for electing a Speaker of the House of Commons. It seems curious, they say, that, at a time when everyone is signed up to the rhetoric of transparency, that the new Speaker will be elected by secret ballot. This is, of course, a paradox without a contradiction.

The principle of the secret ballot is at the heart of liberal democracy. It is an essential safeguard against intimidation and the abuse of power. What was wrong with the previous way of choosing the Speaker was that public votes opened MPs to pressure and inducements from their whips. Just as in general elections, voters cast their ballots in secret.

Which brings us to another controversy of last week, over the court action brought by The Times to publish the identity of NightJack, the police blogger. At the very least, it seems a strange choice of priorities for a media organisation to seek to apply the principle of transparency not to the Government or the powerful but to someone engaged in a branch of its own trade. The Times ought to understand that sometimes, in order for journalists and bloggers to hold the powerful to account, identities have to be withheld. Mr Justice Eady did not accept this in the NightJack case, but the Belfast High Court made the right decision by accepting the right of Suzanne Breen, a journalist, to protect her sources by keeping their identity secret.

There are all sorts of problems with anonymity and the internet, but generally this is not at odds with the principle of openness as applied to the powerful. Just as NightJack and Ms Breen's sources blew the whistle on those in authority over here, the Tweeters of Iran have been blowing the whistle on the stolen election in Tehran. Anonymity for the relatively powerless does not contradict, indeed it buttresses, the application to the powerful of the principle of maximum transparency.