The Power of Transparency


28 Monday 28th June 2010
In contemporary politics it is important that you are seen to be doing something. The leaders of the world’s top-twenty countries met this weekend to discuss their collective fiscals deficits and what to do with the global banking system. The substance that comes from this meeting may be negligible but the style of such a showcase will suffice. It is enough that something visual happened.
The narrative that the world’s economic system will soon be better than ever before is now being applied over the images by PR gurus. Why will it be better? Because, we are told, banks and financial institutes, will be more transparent in their dealings. As the Spanish prime minister preached ”There is nothing better than transparency to demonstrate solvency.”
But why stop at the finance industry - if this ‘there is nothing better than transparency’ principle were to be applied across the whole political system it would surely make for a more pleasant society. Being visible makes people accountable to their actions. In ‘The Silent State’ Heather Brooke, the ‘unsung political hero’ in bringing the expenses scandal to light, illustrates that the more information available to the public, the less the chance of corruption by those in power. A simple comparison of current MP’s receipts with ones from five years ago provides ample evidence of this.
In true democracies information belongs to the public. But in the UK - the ‘mother of democracies’ - power remains largely anonymous, unattributed and protected within bureaucratic red-tape and hierarchical cliques.
However, as understanding of the Internet grows and skills in using the Freedom of Information Act develop, citizens of such democratised states are beginning to empower themselves and challenge the constricted flow of public information.
TheyWork4You is a brilliant example of interested and innovative citizens working for the public in order correct a systematic democratic deficit. Costing the tax-payer absolutely nothing, these developers have given society direct access to the contact details and voting history in Parliament of all MP’s. Five years ago this information was obscured to the average voter. Even though what happens in the Commons is done for the people, at public cost, those who make the laws of the land traditionally been strangely inaccessible to the people. A quick read of John Pilger or some of the excellent work done by MediaLens will explain why this is so.
To put it briefly, this all illustrates two things. The first is that politics is dirtier than we can ever imagine. The second is that more often than not the only remedies to these democratic defects comes from determined citizens taking the initiative to do something that serves the public interest. 
Perhaps the greatest examples of unethical behaviour being revealed to the public has come through whistle-blowers. Subverting from within, these ‘rebels’ have gone behind their masters back and publicised the reality that lies behind the rhetoric.
A hugely important (and disturbing) example of the importance of whistleblowers comes from the publicising of a video revealing a US air crew shooting down 12 Iraqi civilians via the website Wikileaks. Initially the US military claimed all the dead were insurgents and they were reacting to active firefight. The video seems to confirm that this as a irrefutable lie. 
Wikileaks says there are more videos to come that challenge America’s narrative of the ‘War on Terror’ including another US military video showing one of its most deadliest air strikes in Afghanistan. An act the Afghan government reported killed 140 civilians including 92 children.
To confirm the seriousness of protecting the ‘manufactured reality’ of events in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bradley Manning, the US intelligence specialist who is believed to have leaked this data, is currently being detained in Kuwait. As this material ‘could do serious damage to national security', the ‘co-operation’ of Wikileaks creator, Julian Assange is also being sought by the US.
Wikileaks was also behind the distribution of the list of BNP members, and the leaking of emails from climate scientists from University of East Anglia that showed manipulation of information - information that was being used in Parliament to decide environmental policy.
But Wikileaks symbolises more than just the distorted narrative we are delivered through political speeches and mainstream news. It, along with the work of Heather Brooke and the guys behind TheyWork4You, and countless other projects, serves as a realisation that things are changing. Information is gradually becoming transparent and no career politician can resist it - the PR would be just too bad.
This may seem all rather utopian and romantic but the steps being taken in Iceland show there is real substance in this. The aim behind the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative is to internationalise media law and bring it up to speed with the information age. In other words, Iceland wants to become to journalists what Belize and the Bahamas is to billionaires.
Some critics argue this is a PR stunt by the Icelandic government to recover it’s image following Ashgate and the collapse of the countries banking system. However with Julian Assange, the mind behind Wikileaks, being flown into Iceland to advise its politicians on how to implement such a law, journalists fighting for freedom of expression may find Iceland a true ally. Wikileaks currently avoids legal implications by routing all it’s activity through Sweden, where investigation into an anonymous source is illegal. Under the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative could journalists, whistleblowers, and ‘leakers’ would console themselves with a degree of legal protection.
Why all this doesn’t exist already makes you wonder what such democratic countries have to hide, and what remains to be unearthed in the murky depths of State secrecy.

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