Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 8 July 2013

Privileged access: no longer just for the top dogs

The democratisation of information, accelerated by the burgeoning social media, now means that everyone knows everything all the time. The old notion of “strictly private and confidential” has become an anachronism.

Privileged information used to be a weapon used by top people to establish their territorial rights and to assert their authority. In political, civil and business hierarchies, the power of those at the top was protected by their access to confidential information. Lower down the food-chain the workers and people on the factory floor had to be satisfied that the ‘bosses’ knew what they were doing. There was a sense of ‘closed doors’ when any serious matter of strategy or finance was being discussed.

In medieval hierarchies the peasants were kept in place by their illiteracy. Only the clergy could read the Bible and they told the generally ignorant people what it said.

Access to information has always been for those who are privileged. That is why we preface some important part of a conversation with “strictly between us” before telling the confidential story. A document with a “strictly private and confidential” stamp confers a measure of privilege on the one to whom it is addressed.

There used to be a line between information about people which was out in the open and that which was considered to be ‘personal’. Now, in the very public social media, a great deal of highly personal information is right there for all the world to see. We see each other’s personal, often intimate photographs and follow each other’s every movement in sometimes agonising detail.

There was a time when inquisitive subordinates or children trying to pick up on tit-bits of confidential discussions were told firmly “That’s none of your business!” These days everything is everyone’s business. In politics, as in business, transparency is the current and greatest virtue. Any sniff of hiding information or obfuscation is immediately debunked. Nothing can be kept ‘under wraps’ for any length of time anymore. The people on the ground have now become used to having access to information. They like it and want more and more of it.

In the public domain, what is happening in Egypt illustrates this perfectly. After a proper democratic election, Mohamed Morsi was found to be veering in a direction away from the people who elected him. The hyperactive public media, also feeding off the social media, could pass on full information about Morsi’s performance. The people were being updated constantly about his decisions and leadership choices. The news spread and a popular uprising started. As it did in other ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings, the social media took over and mobilised the population. Morsi and his party tried desperately to defend and ‘explain’ what was going on. But the people wouldn’t have it.

In Syria it is the same thing. The government tries to placate the people by putting a spin on what they are doing, and referring to the popular opposition as ‘trouble-makers’. But the information in the hands of the people is too powerful. They know the truth.

Governments fear losing what they regard as their security-controlled information. It makes them vulnerable when the people know what is going on. The Edward Snowden affair shows how easy it is for a systems-geek to expose the wrong-doing of a country’s leaders. Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, is taking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy. It costs Scotland Yard, it is said, $5 million a year to keep an eye on him. That is how dangerous information is, and how keenly the British government wants to keep it out of reach.

Listed public companies, bowing to increasing shareholder activism and various governance imperatives, now insist on annual reports disclosing a great deal of detail that was previously ‘strictly private and confidential’. Directors’ remuneration must be fully disclosed; so is their attendance at board meetings. Soon board members will have to acknowledge how they voted on contentious issues. Governance doyen Mervyn King is a vigorous advocate of ‘integrated reporting’, where the company and its board must show how the company creates value. They cannot simply get away, as they did for so long, with reporting only the financials. The stakeholders now want to know about the strategy and governance details as well as how the company engages with the community, how it relates to the environment, and generally how it does its business.

Board members often complain that board meetings take too long and that directors regularly ask for more information before they make decisions. The addiction to information is found at all levels.

The management of the information about Madiba’s progress in hospital illustrates how much the democratisation of information has become entrenched. In the past we would have been satisfied with the suspect bulletins given by ANC spokesman on the matter, Mac Maharaj, and simply trusted the authorities for the ex-president’s well-being. Now there are daily requests for the doctors to give an accurate account of what is really happening. We want to hear what professionals who can be trusted have to say. People are no longer content to be kept in the dark.

We understand that Nelson Mandela has a family and that they have first access to the information about him, but in a very particular and real sense he also belongs to us, the people of South Africa. We and all those around the world who treasure his legacy have a claim on knowledge of his well-being and exactly what is happening to him.

The job of the media is to get to the truth. Often it takes a great deal of time and effort for them to present an accurate account of the facts. Why would those in authority not realise that it is easier and less punishing in the end to communicate with honesty and integrity; not to treat the public like children and to stop dissembling when important issues are at stake? DM

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