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The difference between disclosure and transparency

Disclosure is telling facts; transparency is telling facts with the expectation that you will be held to account. Why does Better Together not seem to know the difference?

When we were punting our new report to the Herald I was asked what I thought about the Better Together donation affair and this turned into a little story in the newspaper. I’d like to expand a little on those comments.

First, I was asked if I was ‘demanding’ that the donation be returned (if you’ve been in a cave for a week, the biggest donor to Better Together has been associated with a number of business deals involving Serbian war criminals and various dictatorial regimes). I do not think anyone is suggesting the donations are illegal and I don’t think anyone is suggesting the money donated was the result of illegality. So Better Together has no legal obligation to return the money. Which in turn means I have no right to demand it – this is Better Together’s call. And since the money is almost certainly already spent, I did not at any point imagine they’d give it back.

That does not mean that Better Together has handled this well either practically or presentationally. At the heart of their problem seems to me to be a confusion over the difference between disclosure and transparency. Put very simply, disclosure means you tell people what you did; transparency means you tell people what you did for the explicit purpose that they can then examine what you did to see if you should have done it. A failure to appreciate this difference has led Better Together to lose the plot presentationally.

Why do I say ‘lose the plot’? Well, because if you follow the Better Together line that to pursue an individual on the basis of legitimate questions about previous activity is a ‘smear campaign’, the human rights movement might as well pack up and go home. No-one is having a go at Ian Taylor (the donor) because he is (for example) gay, or disabled, or of a particular religious or ethnic group. That would be smearing because that would be illegitimate concerns being raised about personal attributes of the person concerned. Equally, none of what I have seen is insinuation – it appears to be fairly solid in terms of factual statement. That does not mean you necessarily agree with the analysis or conclusion, but it puts it into a different category than a ‘smear’.

To repeat, if you want to claim to be an organisation operating in a transparent manner you must accept that people will examine and make value judgements on the basis of information you disclose. The private sector does not claim to be ‘transparent’ in its operation, it expects to be compliant. So it releases information on matters such as its shareholders, its company directors and so on, but it at no time claims that it will then be responsible for the lives or behaviours of those people other than where laws or rules are breached or where massive reputational harm has been done. This is a commercial interaction and frankly morality above and beyond the law is not part of the consideration.

This is why the Better Together argument that ‘you wouldn’t ask Harris Tweed to give the money back’ is so ridiculous. Better Together seeks to take a national leadership position, not sell sports jackets. If it is not aware that this implies a greater level of scrutiny and a higher expectation of probity, it has a serious credibility problem.

But it has another problem – it is acting and behaving in this matter not like a civic political campaign but like a corporation caught in a scandal which has hired a professional PR trouble-shooter. It’s defences are private sector defences, its strategies aggressive and ‘non-civic’. To claim people engaged in transparent scrutiny are engaged in a ‘smear’ is itself a straightforward smear tactic. Imagine the application of this allegation; someone investigating possible breaches of human rights would become vile defamers. In this world view, Amnesty International is just one big conspiracy to smear global leaders.

So when I was asked if I would demand they give the money back I said no I wouldn’t. Instead I would warn them what their behaviour looks like. It is indistinguishable from right-wing corporate sector bullying of civic campaigners. I know this is just politics, but politics is perception. The majority of people who have been put forward by Better Together to argue its case have come from the business sector – and more often than not the big business sector. It’s donors are almost all Tory donors. Its staff operate along PR strategic lines that look to my eyes more in the tradition of corporate PR than political campaigning.

Better Together should take no interest in my political or constitutional views when it operates its campaign – this seems self evident. But if it can’t see that it is generating a reputation for being a Tory-inflected campaign that speaks for elite business interests then that is its own problem.

However, I would strongly urge it to lay off accusations that citizens (opponents or otherwise) who seek to investigate and hold to account the campaign on the basis of who funds it are engaged in a smear campaign. That is not the rhetoric of democracy and the politicians involved with this campaign must surely instruct the organisation on some basic principles – sometimes you lose and it is best to do so with grace, and democratic scrutiny never feels pleasant when you’re the subject but that’s why its called democracy.

I’ve criticised a number of corporations for their links to unscrupulous dealings with unscrupulous people. I’ve had a go at the Tories, Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP in the past for some of their donors. I’ve argued against universities investing their pension funds in tobacco, I’ve objected to inappropriate corporate tie-ups arranged by overseas aid charities, I’m currently complaining about the use of corporate advertising in materials that have been given to my daughter in her nursery class. I consider this to be a noble democratic tradition. What on earth makes Better Together think it is above the same scrutiny?

Robin McAlpine