Links: Transparency is Easy

February 7, 2013

If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that at work I am in charge of the BBC Internet blog.

At work we say that the blog has what’s called an “accountability” function. Or to put it in decent English, it’s a place where licence fee payers can ask questions of BBC staff through comments and get answers – which is my personal definition of “accountability”. Although it’s a rather difficult word to define, and other people define it differently.

Another word which is difficult to define is “transparency”. Over the years from time to time I’ve heard calls for the BBC to be more “transparent”.

So I’m spending some time thinking about “transparency”.

There seems to be a lot of transparency about.

On the face of it being transparent seems quite easy:

1. A few years ago Davos was regarded by some as a secret conspiracy where a global elite plotted to control the world behind closed doors.

Davos may still be a conspiracy involving a global elite but it doesn’t seem very secret anymore. The guest list and the agenda is published online, journalists swarm all over it and EU Commissioner Nellie Kroes is tweeting pictures from it. Davos has become more “transparent”.

2. Both Google and Twitter publish yearly transparency reports.

3. Michael Arrington recently said that after Techcrunch was bought by AOL he ensured there was a clause in the contract that gave him permission to reveal confidential information about Yahoo:

More than once at TechCrunch we made AOL extremely uncomfortable with things that we wrote. But they never ordered us to write or not write about something because they understood that not only would we not comply, we’d write a post about the whole thing.

Our independence from AOL was so important to me that I negotiated an extremely odd provision in our purchase agreement that allowed me to disclose confidential information about AOL. It was their job never to give me that information. It was not my job to protect it in any way.

The existance of this clause and the fact that he revealed it, is on the face of it, rather transparent.

4. The Mexican goverment has had a transparency initiative, although according to the Financial Times this hasn’t been as transparent as perhaps it could have been…

Peña Nieto himself has declared four houses, a flat and four pieces of land. A lot, but how much are they worth? Without that information it is impossible to gauge the wealth of each official.

In England, a flat in Mayfair could be worth 20 in Macclesfield. The same principle exists in Mexico. Officials have told beyondbrics that “the values of the properties of the members of the Cabinet will be included in their annual tax returns”. Which is beside the point — tax returns are confidential.

5. The best thing I’ve read so far on this subject is “The Transparency Conspiracy” by Ivan Krastev:

People hardly need additional data to recognize, say, a rise in inequality or mistreatment of immigrants. The WikiLeaks cables did not teach us anything qualitatively new about America’s policies.

Living in truth cannot be reduced to having access to full information. It is people’s willingness to take personal risks and confront the powerful by daring to speak the truth, not the truth itself, that ultimately leads to change.

So, if information is useless without action the question should be:

What’s the use of transparency? To the licence fee payer? To the BBC? With the licence fee payer knowing more make the BBC’s programmes, content and service better? How?

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