The Risk-Monger

If you want to get caught, try to hide something or take the information off the Internet. The best way to bury bad news is to display it in plain sight at the right time. Such is the counter-intuitive communications reality in a world where a growing part of the population despises deception but generally can’t otherwise be bothered to read or pay attention to the information they have access to.

In a secular society, our virtues are slowly transforming, away from Christian cardinal virtues towards a sort of ecologically correct, self-empowerment value system. The Risk-Monger has already made his critique on the limits of the virtue of sustainability. Transparency is another contemporary social value that is highly deficient, albeit masked with much celebration. But is transparency even a virtue?

Transparency is a tool, we are told, that is essential for trust-building. Well, actually, no! Transparency is a tool used when we don’t trust someone or some organisation. True, the lack of transparency raises trust alarm bells. If my wife asks me where I have been all night and I don’t answer her, there will be trust issues. But if my wife trusts me, she would have little reason to ask me where I have been. We continually ask industry lobbyists to be completely transparent, but do you ever wonder why we never demand the same transparency from environmentalists? Most don’t even dare to call environmentalists lobbyists, but rather “advocates” (a “lobbyist” is someone who cannot be trusted).

People who are paranoid or angry about being excluded from power structures will highlight any closed conversations as an affront to one’s “right to information”. Our decision-making process needs to be consultative with my participation and engagement expected (translation: if the decision goes against my wishes, someone whom I disagree with must have secretly influenced the process, and that is a vice). If we could control people I disagree with, then all decisions would be acceptable …

This, of course, is nonsense – well repeated by paranoid campaigners like those in Corporate Europe Observatory – who don’t trust industry or government (or anyone who doesn’t agree with their worldview), and demand that these others be transparent in order to be trusted. When industry or lobbying firms are transparent, they then are scoffed at by CEO activists because, well, how can we be sure they are transparent since they are industry and hence, cannot be trusted. I had a girlfriend like that once … I think she is heavily medicated now.

A hypocrite can be transparent (and still very much a hypocrite, just blissfully unaware). Take CEO again: they can criticise non-transparent lobbying techniques they themselves commit, like having staff who pretend to be journalists (and then deny there was any wrongdoing) or they pay journalists to write articles for them, admit it, and then pretend, on publication, that the work was done by a freelance journalist. Indeed, liars can be transparent once they believe that the lies are either justified or if they convince themselves that their nobility surpasses any moral indignation. I tend to feel, as a Kantian, that, although you may be transparent, it is not OK to lie.

Aggressive bullies and pit-bulls can be transparent. When they attack individuals, try to expose people who have not broken any laws or merely were nominated for a post, they are pretending to speak from the pulpit of transparency, but are simply displaying a hostile, vicious character. They spit and rage when an industry-based person is even proposed to be nominated to an EU agency board (and run “name and shame” campaigns against these poor individuals), but does CEO or ALTER-EU even raise a peep when someone like the European Public Health Alliance general-secretary, Monika Kosińska, takes on a position at the World Health Organization? Of course not, they celebrate it. Did CEO investigate the European Environment Agency for the conflict of interests and corrupt payments made by their former agency head, Jacqueline McGlade? Of course not – even though it was raised in the European Parliament.

There have been some ridiculous claims in the interest of transparency. A biotech company and EFSA were condemned for hiding information by not releasing proprietary information regarding their research to the public (or to be more precise, the public that wants to continue to bash the reputation of the biotech company). Translation: in an anarchist’s world, there can be no intellectual property rights or patents protecting commercially sensitive information – not quite a stable foundation to encourage innovation. Websites set up by governments during international conferences to encourage open debate must not allow participation by organisations that don’t agree with NGO campaign objectives. Translation: only those who agree with us can be involved in open debate. The Risk-Monger tried to engage CEO in a reasonable discussion in the last link (it was hopeless).

So liars, hypocrites, bullies, journalists who can be bought and paid for as well as pit-bulls can think of themselves as virtuous if they are transparent … Hmmm, not evidence of a very high ethical pedigree indeed and perhaps a good explanation why people involved with CEO do not get very much respect in Brussels. But let’s dig deeper into the shallowness of transparency as a virtue.

Transparency is tied to openness and accessibility. In the risk communication world, these are trendy terms now as academics cum consultants advise governments to engage in a participatory, consensus-building decision-making process. Translation: a good leader is one who is led by the wisdom of the mob. In an age where influence is power (forget knowledge – there are apparently too many stupid people in power), transparency is considered part of the democratic process (let’s try not to remind ourselves that it is mostly the activists – a very small part of the population – who use the participatory channels they have been demanding). Although they speak of memberships in distant lands they never consult, these activists somehow feel their biases are representative of some greater population. Where is the Greenpeace transparent consultation process? The Risk-Monger is often attacked as being unfair because he likes to levy the same standards on Greenpeace as they insist on industry groups. Shouldn’t we?

I’ve got this feeling …

As long as man has had eyes, they have been afraid that people have been watching them. Edward Snowden, the delightfully paranoid turncoat who became the self-appointed spokesperson for transparency, spoke of millions of phone calls being listened in on, millions of emails read (until, fearing for his life from some allegedly US-funded Chinese Triad hit-squad, he sought refuge in the totally open and transparent state of Russia – honestly you cannot make this stuff up, it is so rich). So what sort of emails are the NSA reading from the Risk-Monger? The famous one about the need to deworm his cat? Or maybe the student trying to get an extension on her report deadline … hardly the end of civilisation as we know it.

Am I upset about the NSA reading millions of emails or listening to decades of phone calls? Certainly if I am doing something wrong and fear I might get caught. I think most people were upset, if at all, because they did not know (at least one well known German politician was). Every time I call a service organisation, I am told that my call may be recorded – I do not automatically hang up. I know at a bank machine that there is a camera recording me, and if it prevents thefts (the argument for surveillance cameras), should I have a problem with it? Only thieves and transparency gurus seem to find this offensive. But then again, before this transparency obsession bubbled over, I used to feel I had a right to privacy.

The closest we get to privacy today, as championed by these transparency gurus, is what is a rather innocuous term called “data privacy” – a superficial utilitarian demand that one’s credit card information or identity details are not stolen and used by people with ill-intentions. This is not a right to privacy, but the right to have the data I provide to some organisation to not be misused (a contractual right). Snowden felt that the personal data the NSA was collecting was a misuse – but this is not personal privacy.

And here is the issue. In demanding total transparency (a virtuous world for the paranoid), we are often compromising personal privacy (unless I am a hypocrite and think that everyone else must be transparent but I have a right to my privacy). If we want transparency in the full sense of the word, then we have to accept that everyone is in the open, all of the time. What offends people about this 24/7 total surveillance is that it implies that no one is trusted (reminder: transparency is demanded when trust has evaporated) and everyone has to allow themselves to be watched.

Privacy is a right all individuals have which most states have protected (eg, to not have to disclose medical conditions, sexual preferences, political views and religious beliefs). We should not be fired for having these views and preferences and we should not be forced to disclose them. But transparency implies that when I express an idea or an interest, full disclosure is demanded. If I argue against the meat industry, should my dietary decisions be demanded, or should my arguments be able to stand on their own?

But Mr Risk-Monger, we only want total transparency and unlimited surveillance on the decision-makers. Our concern is that industry has an over-extended influence on the decision-making process. Privacy of individuals is never at risk.

Well, no. You want a decision-making process that engages all people. So all people involved, all those expressing their interest, need to be held under the microscope.

The richest example is when CEO bought a journalist (why do they continue to do such an unethical thing?) to write a report on the influence of the tobacco industry during the Tobacco Products Directive, and had to apologise (with their tail magnificently between their legs) for the inaccuracies in their report when so many ex-smokers came into the comments section explaining that they entered the tobacco consultation on their own accord to ensure that e-cigarettes are not unfairly legislated against. CEO had assumed they were all working for big tobacco. CEO is suggesting that we investigate all individuals who exercise their democratic right by writing their MEPs on a subject they care about (an anarchist’s goal is to interrupt the democratic process).

People over the age of 35 may still remember a time when they had private lives. When the internet and chat sites first became popular, we begged our children to keep personal information off the web for fear of on-line predators. This concern has been drowned out by social networking tools that demand as much personal information as possible (to refine and enrich their variant marketing tools and to which privacy is an obstacle). Teenagers today crave the attention that tools like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter allow them, providing a micro-fame sensation. Organisations and campaigners use social media to extend their celebrity and reputation – but in the end we are all becoming public figures. A tweet from my personal twitter account is considered as the equivalent of a press release – a publication of a position.

The rule today is that by being more open, people are trusted more. By being more private, they are less trusted. In other words, transparency, this demand for openness and access, is the main cancer to privacy today.

So if I were to have a conversation with a friend of mine who is a lobbyist, or another friend from my childhood who works in the European Commission, about my personal health problems (or how to deworm my cat), a transparency campaigner from CEO or ALTER-EU (same people) may see that there is a conversation and demand to know what we were talking about. If I prefer to keep that conversation personal, I will be deemed to have committed some sort of wrong-doing. I have no private life any more.

If all we are demanding from our leaders and all we expect as a virtue in social activity is that people be transparent, then I wonder how morally bankrupt and socially malnourished we have become. If that is all we are demanding from our leaders, then we do not expect very much. Transparency is not a virtue, but what comes in to fill the void of the lack of virtue.


PS: The Risk-Monger will be moderating a session on 11 September at the EPRERA 2014 forum Communications Ethics in a Connected World entitled: Transparency and privacy in a connected world . Contact him offline for more information.


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