Secrecy, Privacy and Freedom of Information

AuthorMichael Hunt
DOI10.1177/014473940702700203
Publication Date01 September 2007
Teaching Public Administration, Autumn 2007, Vo!.27, No.2, pp.25-36
SECRECY, PRIVACY AND
FREEDOM
OF
INFORMATION
MICHAEL HUNT
Sheffield Hallam University
Introduction
That the government should wish to amend the Freedom
of
Information (FoI)
Act 2000 barely two years after its implementation in 2005 came more as a
disappointment than a surprise. Despite the Labour Party's 1997 manifesto
commitment to open government the draft bill which eventually emerged in
1998 seemed more indicative
of
the government's concern to retain control over
what information was released, and when, than an genuine attempt to open up
the processes
of
government. Its proposals for reform in 2006, which centred
around the suggestion that some 'serial' requests and some 'frivolous' requests
were taking up an unreasonable amount
of
time (and therefore costing too much
money) seemed to confirm an ongoing anxiety about the effectiveness of
freedom
of
information.
This attempt to further reduce the impact
of
the Act provides both a
reason and a focus for examining some
of
the deeply held assumptions about
the role
of
government and about freedom
of
information which informed both
the Act passed in 2000 and its subsequent implementation. This paper does this
in two ways. First it considers the nature
of
secrecy and whether the
justifications for individual secrecy also apply to government.secrecy. In this
context it also examines the link between secrecy and privacy and the ways in
which the two concepts have become intertwined by governments concerned to
maintain a monopoly over official information. Secondly, it examines the
possible justifications for government secrecy and, in particular, examines the
way in which successive governments have used the term 'the public interest' to
justify official secrecy.
Secrecy
and
Privacy
Amongst the various writers on secrecy, one
of
the best known and most useful
is Sissela Bok. She suggests that secrecy is indispensable for human beings and
is part
of
the way in which we relate to one another. In particular, it is part
of
the way in which we try to determine the way that others see us - to have no
capacity for secrecy, she suggests, is to lose control over the way in which we
are seen by others. Secrecy provides a safety valve 'some influence over
transactions between the world
of
experience and the world shared with others'
25

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