Sunday, 25 April 2010

In Private

Here's a question no-one really bothers to ask: is openness and transparency in government really all that important?

If that seems like a self-evidently absurd question, it's because it probably is. Still, it's worth following through on it for a moment. One of the key points about parliamentary politics is that you elect people for a five-year term, and you know perfectly well that you'll be stuck with their decisions for that period; hence, the electorate vote for the people whom they trust the most. Whenever news is released about the latest scandal it's accompanied by a clamour for more openness... but maybe, rather than calling for more openness, we should just be calling for our representatives to be a bit less shit. The neatest summation of this argument was put forth by David Mitchell on Have I Got News For You: "So essentially they've said 'This swimming pool is full of piss, therefore swimming pools are a bad idea,' not 'We've all been pissing in the pool.'"

What's difficult to accept is that, when dealing with any institution, individuals cease to matter in the way we think they should. There have been many famous social experiments to show how fragile our grip on morality is, how people adapt to the "rules" of any micro-society; the Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the best-known of these, even if it does seem a bit showy. Back in the seventies they just did experiments to see if people would cross the road on a red light if someone else did it, which seems positively charming. Sometimes you wonder what the Sex Pistols were so annoyed about.

The Stanford Experiment shows how tenuous and flexible the idea of "personal morality" is - and, in relating to prisons, it's a narrative that should resonate. This story is the latest of too many; the word "inquiry", when related to an investigation by the Garda Ombudsman, is a touch misleading. The two most well-known cases of deaths in Garda custody are probably Brian Rossiter and Terence Wheelock, and both are characterised by the families' struggle to obtain information about the deaths. The Garda Ombudsman report has effectively exonerated the Gardaí from wrongdoing, even if it's rather too polite in pointing out that allowing a ligature point in a cell is a pretty appalling failure.

It fails, though, simply by virtue of how the document is collated. We have an adversarial legal system for a reason; "independence" from the establishment is all but impossible. This generally isn't malicious, it's just that people are predisposed to find what they want. The Garda Ombudsman, as a body, is perfectly fine for dealing with minor transgressions; when we're talking about a death in Garda custody, it stops being an acceptable way of dealing with the issue, particularly given that the inquest into Terence Wheelock's death arrived at its verdict by a 4-3 majority. The report perpetuates the myth of self-regulation, even when we have seen far too much evidence that self-regulation doesn't work.

Over time, institutions tend to protect their own existence. If you've seen The Wire - and if not, then go away and come back to me when you have - you'll have seen a near-perfect treatise on this, but it's worth making the point again. Large organisations follow a simple form of Darwinian mechanics; those who rise to power tend to be those who play by the existing rules, hence the rules become self-perpetuating. As a result, almost all institutions tend to protect themselves first; they act in their own interest rather than the people's. Usually, they convince themselves that the two are more or less the same thing, with a murmur of "the public don't understand" as justification.

One of the benefits of free-market organisations* is that their connection to the general public is built-in, and comes in the form of whether people buy their products or not. Since this only really polices quality and price, these are the only two areas where standards are reflected. In all other areas, companies will do whatever the law allows them to do; granted, they might act "morally" to aid their brand identity, but only because it's more or less impossible to keep their morality secret. Coca-Cola don't volunteer information about child labour in El Salvador or the deaths of union leaders in Colombia, because they don't have to**. The institution acts in its own interests, with a distorted perception of "the common good" that comes filtered through its own needs, until you end up with Irish doctors removing the wombs of women then being protected by their peers. Or you have the astonishing abuse perpetrated in industrial schools, tacitly ignored by the Irish population, and no doubt justified by Christian Brothers still managing to tell themselves it was for the children's own good.

The key point is that this behaviour isn't unique to doctors, or Christian Brothers, or to any other group - not law enforcement, not politics. Most institutions retreat from scrutiny, it's just that these are the most prominent examples. It's a pattern that recurs in any group that becomes isolated from society as a whole, and that isolation - what turns a "group" into an "elite" - will become generally guarded. It's accepted by most people, for example, that salary is a private matter. In fact, there's no real reason that it should be, it just suits most parties to keep it that way; it suits employers, because it prevents wage inflation, and it suits better-off employees, because it stops their earnings being questioned. We accept the privacy of salary as The Way It Works, and don't really question whether it's right or not.

Scrutiny is the only real way to keep people honest, to prevent that degeneration into unaccountability and amorality. When it comes to politics, the five-year ballot box simply isn't a sufficient connection. It's too easy to disguise shortcomings, and complete openness is the only real way to prevent a slow, moral decline. Nowhere is that clearer than looking at the current government. A future general election simply doesn't matter, because as things are going, they'll be wiped out at the ballot box anyway. The greatest threat is from within, and so everything done by Cowen and his cronies is designed to stave off revolt from within his own party. The people aren't important to them, so they don't care what we think.

In short; all institutions resist scrutiny and resist change, and the only way to reform them is to do so from the outside. Hence, as much as is possible should be made public, and that comprises the overwhelming majority of information. Law enforcement tends to be amongst the most secretive, and that is in no way unique to Ireland - I could pull up all sorts of examples, but I'll just say "Stephen Lawrence" and leave it there. As an "impartial" investigation exonerates the Gardaí over the death of one young man, another man dies in a Garda cell elsewhere. It seems obvious that there should be a full, judicial inquiry into the death of Terence Wheelock. It's largely because the family deserve one. However, although they'll never realise it without prompting, the Garda Síochana desperately need it to happen too.

*I always hate typing that sentence. Always.
** Neither of those things are directly related to Coca-Cola, I should add. The child labour in question came courtesy of separate companies who just happen to sell to Coca-Cola, and the union leaders happened to represent people who worked for independent companies that worked for Coca-Cola. So nothing to do with Coca-Cola at all.


Blogger Mór Rígan said...

Excellent piece Nyder. The professor in charge of the Stanford Prison Experiment, Robert Zimbardo, has written an analysis of the SPE and of the reasons for Abu Graib. It's called The Lucifer Effect. The conclusions are easily applied to Catholic or our governmental institutions.

28 April 2010 13:56  

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