Nods and winks and nothing regular

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The Independent Online
IS OUR society becoming more open and transparent, more frank and informative? Politicians boastfully claim it is, or, in opposition, angrily urge it to be made so. Or is it becoming, as it seems to me, ever more dark, closed and opaque, more secretive and hidden? 'Coy and furtive' were the adjectives used by a senior female doctor, shocked by the medical profession's refusal compulsorily to test doctors for HIV or Aids, or to name them if found positive.

Politicians are perhaps bad witnesses. They champion the citizen's 'right to know'. Yet wherever this right is embodied in constitutional law, important decisions will be taken further and further back, in the club, behind the arras, by nods and winks, nothing regular, nothing on paper.

Right to know what, anyway? Nothing about politicians' private lives, to be sure, hugely instructive as these may be. No, but all about what politicians tirelessly shout 'from the rooftops', which is already available ad nauseam anyway, although bored citizens often exercise their right not to know, listen or remember.

In France, allegedly so mature about politicians' private lives, politicians are thus coddled and protected. The French consequently suppose that all or most of their politicians are crooks, liars, adulterers and so on. Are the French wrong? Perhaps less and less so. In secrecy and darkness, evils flourish.

The press should give an ultimatum to politicians: we will report all or nothing, toe-sucking and your boost for the arts, or neither.

The British mania for secrecy and anonymity takes many forms, some trivially irritating, others far more important. Trivial are telephone numbers, for instance, withheld without good reason from the directory. Or those awful limousines with black windows, behind which pop stars are presumed to lurk and loll in epicene luxury.

I came on one of these sinister vehicles, apparently empty, parked at my back gate. From it emerged the loud monotonous thump of rock. Presuming myself unobserved, I executed a grotesque dance of rage and disgust. As I neared the black windows, I became aware of a shadowy bimbo or groupie within, watching me with an amazed horror, perhaps compounded by 'substances'. I straightened my tie, coughed, walked hastily and self-consciously on, once more the very embodiment of bourgeois respectability.

More important aspects of British secrecy mania are the Island Race's refusal to carry identity documents and its rage at having its telephones tapped. Who but a fool ever thought the telephone was secure? Who but a fool (and a rogue, too) would commit to the telephone nefarious plans or sentiments that must not be overheard? My own youthful education in these matters was exemplary. The village postmistress used to listen to all calls. She was thus able to inform all callers exactly where they would find their prey - 'No, she's not at 207, she's playing bridge with Miss Eliot at 221. I'll raise her there' - an invaluable service.

As for identity documents, they would prove a blessing to the law-abiding, a nuisance only to terrorists and other malefactors. An oppressive government, I agree, could use them to oppress. A truly liberal government would use them to avoid unnecessary and vexatious fuss in finding out who people really were.

A most tiresome anonymity freak was Lohengrin. In Wagner's eponymous opera, he bids his bride, Elsa, never to ask his name. Why not? When at last she pops the inevitable question, he at once pops off. What, I wonder, had he to hide? Parsifal, indeed, he reveals to have been his father. Aha] Who then was his mother? Perhaps his reticence was designed to spare his parents' blushes. An identity document need contain none of these embarrassing revelations.

Malign aspects of British secrecy mania may adversely affect children, criminals, child criminals and black people. Our secretive teachers, for instance, are up in arms to shield us from all hurtful knowledge of how badly our children are doing in their care. They therefore oppose the imposition and publication of objective tests. They prefer their own continuous assessment. This is a vague and subjective process, often well intentioned, sometimes spiteful, prejudiced or corrupt. It resembles a driver assessing his own car's fitness for the MOT or an indulgent drinker assessing his fitness to drive.

Indeed, the teachers have carefully said that they are opposed not to all tests, but just to these tests or those, too simple or, as now, far too complicated. If they are too complicated, this appears to be because the teachers themselves and their protective anti-test Educrats insisted they were so.

John Patten, the test pilot, calls in the parents to help him shatter these choking veils of secrecy. Alas, most parents now (many teachers, too) were themselves educated in the old testless and untesting world of continuous assessment, which has produced such dire results. Happily knowing nothing, they are content that their children should know nothing.

Parents may also fear their children are none too bright. They thus prefer them left in ignorance. Parents, too, may be influenced by and sympathetic to teachers, who are supposed, after all, to know more than parents about education.

One of the most conspicuous and, to me, irritating fruits of secrecy mania is the practice of suppressing names and blotting out features in photographs of young criminals. Names of rape victims are also suppressed and often the race and colour of black people. The humane reasons for all this are obvious enough: to shield innocent victims and the immature from horrendous publicity; to avoid creating or augmenting racial prejudice, and so on. The results, as of all suppressio veri, are grim and unintended.

A good witness, who saw a woman in London at the time she claims to have been raped in Walsall, may not come forward. An unpictured boy may be found guilty of an assault that others clearly saw committed by someone else. Publicity is an essential part of discovering the truth. A free press is an essential part of the judicial process. In administering justice, moreover, a knowledge of past convictions, now secretively withheld, is also crucial.

Public anger, deprived of its proper focus, spreads and festers, venting itself wildly on the innocent as well as the guilty. Where black wrongdoers are not so described, evil suspicions grow that all blacks are criminals or that all crimes are committed by blacks - both suspicions manifestly false.

Especially where no punishment can be inflicted on the unidentified young, repentance and forgiveness are discouraged. Why repent of what is apparently not regarded and punished as an abhorrent crime, a matter for public shame? As for forgiveness, is it not easier to forgive those who know not what they do than those we know not who they are?

If a boy's offences are sufficiently 'serious and grave', it seems he may indeed be named. The standards applied appear whimsical. A boy who tried with concrete blocks to derail trains (he also set his school and a bus alight) is not named and his features are blotted out. He said he could not stop himself. Perhaps others would stop him if they knew what he looked like or if he were in custody, which he isn't.

Another boy is named. He head-butted his headmistress, breaking her nose in two places and causing scars. Yet a crashed train might contain many headmistresses and more than their noses might be broken. It doesn't seem fair.

Evil flourishes in secrecy and darkness. It is not a secret garden we British have here - more like a secret snake- or cess-pit.

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