Sometimes secrecy may be no bad thing.
I caught a snatch of Any Questions yesterday; someone (I think it might have been Sally Bercow) was saying words to the effect of "transparency is always a good thing" -- presumably in the context of whether Prince Charles's letters to government ministers should be made public.
I am not sure what I think about that partcular teaser. My gut reaction is to think that even people in power ought to be able to write things to each other that aren't automatically made public. If they cant write it down for fear of disclosure, they'll do exactly the same business on the phone or over dinner and then no evidence will be left and no-one will ever know.
But what really struck me was how people get fixated on the "right to know", at the expense of much bigger and more important questions. If we are going to have a king -- then I guess I'm prepared to let him, when heir to the the throne, write to government ministers privately. I'd much rather that people got worked up about whether we should have a king at all, or at least whether the structures of the monarchy as now defined deliver to us what we want. Just knowing what he wrote doesn't make a blind bit of difference to that big issue. You'd never actually be able to pin any decision to his influence anyway.
I've fought for disclosure on all kinds of things, and information that the powers that be think we cant be trusted with. And just after the final Hillsborough revelations, it's probably a bad time to be writing this. But, unfashionable as it is to say, we do appear to have forgotten that sometimes not knowing things can actually be useful. Some things are usefully confidential.
It always strikes me at this time of year, when the uni applications for next year have come in. In days gone by (presumably back in the Dark Ages before the data-protection act), the school references for candidates were confidential, between the head and the university; the kids didnt get access to them. Now they are entirely open to both the applicant and their parents. And they are much less useful in the selection process, for obvious reasons.
I know all the good motves for the change (apart from the long arm of the data protection act). The relationship between pupil and school should be such that nothing that is said should come as a surprise to the applicant. If there are mistakes in the reference, then it is only right that the kid should be able to correct it. Etc etc. In fact, when I got my job aged almost 30, back in my old college, one of the first things I did was rummage through the old files and dig out my head teacher's reference.
Now I dont want to sound as if I don't value the hard work that teachers still put into writing these references, to be as helpful as they possibly can. But the truth is (as many teachers will tell you) that openness does put a curb on frank honesty. And when we are trying to get as rounded a picture of the candidate as we can (partly with all the well known issues of access in mind), the blander records-of-achievement style references that we now often have are much less useful.
Of course, in the old days, there were occasionally teachers who were biased for or against a candidate, or made a bad judgement of them ( I remember one teacher lambasting a girl for her lack of enthusiasm for team sports... it might have been a clever double bluff, but I dont think so). But we never treated these things as gospel truth anyway; they were however very useful as judgements, and we judged the judgements.
And however good the relationship is between school and pupil, there are things that might be usefully conveyed that would be useless and counterproductive for an anxious, or ambitious, or volatile eighteenyear old to read (still less their Mum and Dad). When I finally got to my reference among all the back files, I thought it was spot on, and it pinpointed things about me that would have been a useful guide to how I was likely to perform (or not) at interview. "She is the only child of elderly parents" said a very great deal about the 18 year-old Beard, but it wouldn't have done me any good to read at the time.
The same goes, so far as I'm converned, for medical records. There is nothing I want to see less than what my doctor has just written ("over anxious, borderline obese, drinks too much...?cancer"). What I do want from my doctor is that s/he'll have the time to talk to me, according to the necessarily changing agenda of what I want to know or what s/he thinks I need to know. I mean, what I want is dialogue, not a glimpse of some notes (whether written in the knowledge that I shall be looking at them or not).
My sneaking suspicion is that access to documents is what a bureaucracy gives us when its practitioners havent got the time to talk to us anymore. It can be a poor substitute.