Blogging, secrecy and accountability

A long time ago, I wrote and article on the Anglo-Catholic on Damian Thompson, Blogging and Episcopal Accountability. The article is still there. The essential theme is that in this age of instant information, no public figure can keep dirty secrets secret for long. This is almost certainly how bishops and other Church officials were outed and prosecuted for having aided and abetted child abusers. The article is still there for you to read.

The reason I bring this subject up is my previous article in which Mrs Sandra McColl from Australia calls for discretion and the respect of other people’s secrets:

I’m not talking about suppressing information, just about people regaining the sense of what is, and what is not, their business, and for those who are curious beyond what is not their business to be a little less insistent in demanding to know and to stop trying to make up information that hasn’t been provided.

I would say fair enough. Some things in life are confidential and are not to be fed to the lynching mob. However, we are dealing with human nature and with church organisations of various affiliations that have got away with many things because of institutional secrecy. Over the past few years, many things were secret and under the lid – which turned out to be a euphemism for smoke & mirrors or simply something that didn’t exist. Secrecy is a means of manipulating people, keeping them hooked and hoping for resolution that never comes. Putting it another way, it keeps people waiting for Godot.

To relieve the tension, people can attempt to replace fact by conjecture – or they can say To hell with it all, having seen through the shenanigans and deceit. I’m not pointing fingers, just trying to point out some constants of human nature in the light of some things we have seen play out. It is legitimate for an inventor not to reveal his plans until the invention is found to work and has been patented. There are legitimate uses of secrecy, but people become weary of its abuse. We become cynical and suspicious, and the “conspiracy theory” imagination can so easily run riot. Those who have secrets to keep secret need to practice a little psychology. For example, it is very bad psychology to tell a person “I have a big secret but I’m not telling you“…

The life of churches concerns all those who are interested in churches. In a transparent and honest organisation, there is little need for secrets other than what concerns persons. For example, doctors and lawyers are held to professional secrecy for the good of their clients. It is a misuse of secrecy to make it cover up evil or use it as a tool for manipulation.

One positive thing about the blog is that it is democratised journalism. It may be of lower quality than the work of professional journalists, but I as a blogger try to work ethically – including a minimum of regulation of “trolling” and otherwise calumnious and disturbing comments. I try to use the blog as a ministry of the word, a teaching ministry. A responsible blog can also be used to resist evil and open the windows and doors to let the fresh air in and the musty smells out. It is a part of our freedom of speech as long as we remain within the law, moral principles and the responsible conscience.

We can exhort people to be more Christian and more respectful for other people, but we can’t force them. Where there are grounds for suspicion, people will be suspicious that something stinks. We all have to learn transparency and to behave in such a way as things don’t always have to be secret.

Perhaps there are secrets in Australia? Even now?

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4 Responses to Blogging, secrecy and accountability

  1. ed pacht says:

    Just a few thoughts loosely related to this post:

    Of course there are secrets. There have to be. No one has the right to know everything about everything – I’ve long taken that to be a central message in the story of the fruit on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Part of what brought about the Fall was the insistence on knowing what did not need to be known. The revealing of what is perfectly true can indeed be a potent weapon for doing harm, something recognized in the ancient strictures of secrecy in the confessional. I’ve witnessed many incidents of the damage that can be done Thus anything told me in confidence is held in confidence, unless I have specifically told the confider that I can’t keep it secret.

    That said, it is certainly true that secrecy is capable of being a serious problem in itself, and should be used very sparingly. The RCC has famously got itself in considerable trouble by misuse of secrecy, and the whole development of the Ordinariates and of TAC’s involvement in that process has been seriously marred by the improper use of secrecy

    In this information age, secrecy (as you observe) becomes harder and harder to maintain, resulting in a truism that secrecy half kept is not secret at all. If one keeps a secret, one cannot discuss it in any potentially unsecret medium, or record it in any insecure place, and must carefully guard any and all actions connected with it. Sooner or later the truth will emerge, and when it does must be dealt with. I’m recalling an old film about a priest who heard the confession of a man who intended to commit murder. Unable to reveal what he heard, he watched the false penitent until he made a revealing error, which then the priest could point to as something to be investigated. Thus was the murder prevented.

    Blogging presents a whole new challenge to secrecy, for the most part a healthy challenge but not without serious hazards. Bloggers, like old fashioned muckrakers, can sometimes be seeking for bits that can be distorted to hurt and destroy unjustly, can sometimes alter fact to make it fit their own theories, or indeed add falsities to their report – and often become widely believed. That’s the negative. On the positive side, bloggers (like the muckrakers) can bring to light things that should not be hid.

    All this is intended to do no more than support your view that blogging is potentially a valuable ministry, and, like other kinds of reporting, calls for a high level of ethical consideration. In the recent storms within Anglicanism, I’ve been appalled at the tone and apparent intent of much of what I’ve read. I won’t name names, but I could. At the same time I have been impressed (even when not agreeing entirely) with several sources among which this blog ranks high.

    Thank you for the quality of what you do.

  2. Pingback: Blogging, Honest and Accountability « Fr Stephen Smuts

  3. Sandra McColl says:

    Of course there are secrets in Australia, and not just in confessionals. There is also information that belongs to one person and is communicated to the other under conditions of confidence. There are the private inner workings of people’s minds, major decisions in the process of being made, which are simply only the business of the people whose minds they are, or those to whom they go for advice.

    I agree there are also things that should not be kept secret, although they might also not be the business of the world at large. Open disclosure of finances of an organisation to which people belong and contribute is a necessity, and the ACCA management is working towards this, once it has received delivery of the relevant information. Further, unilateral imposition of confidentiality on correspondence in circumstances where the writer’s only interest in imposing the confidentiality is concealing the lying, cheating or bullying contained in that correspondence, is something to be condemned and resisted.

    Genuine whistle blowers are to be applauded, people who merely leak confidential information because they can are not. ‘Freedom of speech’ is the freedom to hold and express opinions (particularly political and religious), not the freedom to publish whatever comes into your hands even though it is clearly confidential information belonging to someone else.

    Then there’s the matter of what is, or is not, one’s business. Yesterday I counselled custody of the curiosity. The balance sheet of the Ethiopian Orthodox Diocese of Aberdeen, for example, may be publicly available information, but is it any of my business? Is the world made any better because we see pictures of filmstars without their makeup on or know who slept with whom in Hollywood last night? Or by somebody tweeting ‘will I have lamb for dinner or chicken?’

    Once upon a time, not all that long ago, there appeared to be a genuine understanding as to what was legitimately confidential, what was in the public domain and, between that, what was not confidential but may or may not be one’s own business.

    Back to at least one of the matters about which I believe there is overly much curiosity–what individual bishops thought they were doing at Portsmouth and the decisions they have made since the Apostolic Constitution was published. I have read what Fr Chadwick writes about this, and it appears eminently reasonable. That is as far as I would be prepared to go in seeking to speculate on what the reasons might be. The decision to join an Ordinariate is not a small one, even for a layman, and as matters unfold is apt to be influenced by all manner of information that comes to hand. Nobody deserves to be judged for making the decision one way or another, nor to be held accountable most particulalry by someone in another country and not even in or, in the case of Ordinariate members, from the TAC. Further, nobody who hasn’t yet fully committed to one position or the other, or who may be having second thoughts, deserves total strangers to be demanding to know the answer.

    Sorry to write an essay. I realise it hasn’t said much.

    • Indeed, this kind of blog tends to be dominated by the kind of person who will tolerate no variation of thought, even over time and faced with new facts or information. Their attitude is that we are “for them” or “against” them – what went into certain European ideologies of the early twentieth century (without my being tempted to fall victim to Godwin’s Law, as I have sometimes tended to do, even though that aspect of history was but a small part of a general mindset in our Continent over the latter half of the 19th century) or during the Terror of the 1790’s.

      Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves (Matthew x,16).

      We all have to have something of the Scarlet Pimpernel and the grace to guide souls through the madness – and steer a middle course through deafening silence and the “dumb demon”, on one side, and giving nourishment to the wolves on the other. I am not sure if I succeed very well, as I am accused by one commentator over at Fr Smuts’ blog for having been involved in some kind of secret plot with Archbishop Hepworth to overthrow the TAC – thus making a mockery of my calls for transparency and honesty. It is just another example of ammunition given to men like Dawkins who see intrinsic evil in religion under its irrational aspect.

      We live in an insane world. Historical precedent would indicate a descent into tyranny and war. God forbid! When the threshold of evil is exceeded, something has to happen. We pray it would be a sign of God’s infinite mercy…

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