WikiLeaks: Challenging Attitudes to Transparency

Interestingly, the people to whom we present this ‘mask’ often know that we are not being completely sincere. There is a complex game being played here:

  • we are not communicating our honest opinion;
  • the people we are communicating with have a pretty shrewd idea we are not being completely honest;
  • all parties pretend publicly that what we say is what we really think;
  • we reserve our true opinions for private conversations with only our closest allies.

4. When the Rules are Broken

More interesting still: whist everyone is playing the game, all parties are happy. When someone has the temerity to unmask the pretence, everyone becomes very unhappy very quickly.

This is precisely what has happened in the current WikiLeaks saga.

The title of Sir David Manning’s Times article is: ‘Why transparency is not always for the public good’. In it, he treads an uneasy path in support of his conclusion. Initially he concedes that:

“Embarrassing though this may be, the problem so far seems to be less one of content than of confirming in public what were private assessments for private consumption.”

But he then goes on to make the case that privacy and confidentiality are essential ingredients of diplomatic interaction. He argues that ‘unvarnished advice or unflattering comments’ would undermine an ambassador’s access to his host country’s ruling elite. Lack of privacy and confidentiality would prevent them from offering the best possible advice to their governments.

In other words, for the truth to be told in private, lies must be told in public. This is hardly a clear moral beacon by which to navigate.

4 thoughts on “WikiLeaks: Challenging Attitudes to Transparency

  1. Insightful – one thing that occurs to me is that the multitude of communication media available to us all make it incredibly easy to avoid ‘difficult’ or ‘honest’ conversations. So we email, text or IM, in fact anything to avoid a productive duplex conversation. IMHO we are getting worse, not better, at leadership and communication.

    As for Wikileaks we now know that some people thought (amongst other startling revelations) that George Osborne and David Cameron were inexperienced…. no shit sherlock. As the author says – there is nothing remotely earth shattering here – just some one who doesnt want to play the game and no, remarkably, is branded a sex pest. Well I never

    1. Rich – I endorse your comments.

      Your perspective on communications and technology is especially interesting. So-called enabling technology (everything from email to groupware & social media) has exponentially increased our ability to fire off vast volumes of often very abbreviated and ambiguous messages. Like mortar shells, we only have a very approximate idea of what happens when they land.

      We have been seduced into thinking that this = communication. It doesn’t: we’ve lost the ability to identify instances where nuance and subtlety require face-to-face, or at least verbal, interaction. And for those of us who regard these modes of communication as a chore (sadly, this includes too many people in leadership positions) it has provided a ready made excuse to actually avoid interaction.

      I will be posting a longer comment on technology & communication in the next few days.

      Thanks very much for your feedback.


  2. Attack is the best defence. The US Govt has only itself to blame. It circulated these cables to a distribution list of 3 million, it is claimed. It also prior argued that full transparency makes government accountable. What did it expect? Now it has egg on its face. It reminds me of organisations that create awful internal bureaucracies and then blame the government for imposing bureaucracy, hoping to divert responsibility elsewhere. This is shadow-side behaviour. Leaders need to rise above these word games and examine what they are doing in the first place that gives rise to them. By exercising crude power (e.g. on companies to boycott Wikileaks) makes you look less powerful. As Gordon Brown’s memoir says, the more powerful Fred Goodwin became the more he complained and undermined his power.

    1. Appreciated Bill – I find myself in warm agreement with your stance.

      I am increasingly impatient with organisational posturing and pretence around transparency, openness and honesty (and indeed other ubiquitously quoted, inherently ‘good’ values).

      This pretence can be seen in public and private organisations, from national governments to global corporations. These motherhood values are advertised as being part of the organization’s DNA. When someone applies the values too literally however (and exposes a little hypocrisy, for example) the organization’s reaction is to pull the iron fist from the velvet glove and attempt to crush the ‘dissident’.

      Before someone accuses me of being a ‘bleeding heart’, I’m reconciled to iron fist-type organizations being successful and even necessary in some contexts. What I cannot be reconciled to is the systematic cloaking of intentions and the careful disguising of true organizational character.

      Thanks again for your comment.

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