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The result of this may be that bureaucratic resistance differs in
both quality and intensity in the countries outside the United States
that ¬rst emulated its Freedom of Information Act. Administrative
routines designed by departments to blunt disclosure rules appear to
be more highly formalized; senior communications and political staff
appear to play a larger role in vetting proposed responses to informa-
tion requests; and the capacity to coordinate the response to sensitive
requests across several government departments appears greater. In
short, disclosure systems appear more highly centralized and polit-
ically attuned. (The phenomenon may not be limited to the anglo-
phone parliamentary systems. In 2002 the Japanese Defense Agency
acknowledged it kept a list of individuals who made requests for infor-
mation under the country™s disclosure law, adopted in 1997; the list
also contained details about occupations and political beliefs. A sub-
sequent investigation by the Public Management Ministry showed
that over thirty agencies “ including the management ministry itself “
had circulated details about information seekers, in violation of pri-
vacy rules.84 )
Within the anglophone parliamentary democracies, the problem
of of¬cial resistance has also intensi¬ed over time. The sense that
disclosure systems have been transformed is palpable in all of these
jurisdictions. The reasons for this may be straightforward. Journal-
ists and legislators have acquired more experience and learned more
about the intricacies of the bureaucratic system, which enables them

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to make sharper and more dangerous requests. (It may also be true, as
some observers suggest, that bureaucracies have learned to deal with
simpler requests informally, leaving only hard cases within the formal
disclosure process.85 ) At the same time, politicians and bureaucrats
have had the time to re¬ne and formalize their own procedures for
dealing with hard cases. New technologies have created opportunities
for surveillance that were not available two decades ago.
In addition, the context in which governments operate has
changed. Donald Rumsfeld is not the only policymaker who believes
that the problem of overload “ the problem of too many voices making
too many demands on government “ has worsened over the past three
decades. It is a perception that is widely shared by bureaucrats and
elected leaders of all ideological leanings in most advanced democ-
racies. The frustration was articulated in a 1995 report produced
by of¬cials from OECD countries. “Governance capacities are being
challenged,” the study said:

Citizen demand is more diversi¬ed and sophisticated, and, at
the same time, the ability of governments to deal with stubborn
societal problems is being questioned. The policy environment is
marked by great turbulence, uncertainty and an accelerating pace
of change. Meanwhile large public debt and ¬scal imbalances limit
governments™ room for manoeuvre. Traditional governance struc-
tures and managerial responses are increasingly ineffectual in this
context.86

A similar anxiety was manifest at a conclave of OECD ministers
held in Paris the following year. Governments, the ministers agreed,
were facing “intense pressure from citizens, transmitted or provoked
by the media, and demanding rapid responses.” Mechanisms for
prompting responsiveness “ “policies of consultation with the public,
freedom of information, and transparency” “ could be abused, block-
ing constructive governmental action. It was important, the ministers
concluded, to resist “excessive pressure” from the media and pressure
groups: Governments needed “to pursue more active communication
policies, to keep control of their agendas and not just react passively
to the pressure of events.”87
The of¬cial preoccupation with agenda control is evident in the
United Kingdom, as several recent inquiries have shown. In 2003, an
independent investigation into the controversial work of politically

100
Message Discipline


appointed advisors in the Blair government suggested that their
expanding role was a response to “a dramatic change in media pres-
sure” on government, caused by a proliferation of media outlets, an
erosion of media deference, and the advent of a twenty-four-hour
news cycle.88 When the Blair government was criticized by a second
inquiry in 2004 for the informality of its decision making before the
Iraq war “ marked by a lack of brie¬ng papers and ad hoc, unminuted
meetings “ ministers retorted that this, too, was the result of changed
circumstances. A “24/7 news agenda” and the need to react quickly
to events was said to have rendered more formal “ and better docu-
mented “ decision-making processes obsolete.89 The Phillis inquiry,
established in 2003 following allegations of misconduct within the
Blair government™s communications service, echoed these concerns.
While condemning the practice of “misleading spin” of government
policies, the Phillis report acknowledged that government confronted
a broad decline in public trust and “extraordinary pressure” from
the rapid growth in media outlets and intensi¬cation of media
competition.90
In his recent book The Shield of Achilles, Phillip Bobbitt presents
a diagnosis of the predicament of the contemporary state that shares
this concern with media in¬‚uence. The state, says Bobbitt, confronts
a crisis of legitimacy that is largely media-driven:

The press and electronic media, far more than the drab press
releases of any government, are the engines of mass propaganda
today, and it should be borne in mind that the press, when it is not
controlled by the State, is driven by the need to deliver consumers
to advertisers, and whether State-owned or not, is animated by
the conditions of competition among all news media. Whatever
the individual aspirations of its reporters and editors, the ideology
of media journalism is the ideology of consumerism, presentism,
competition, hyperbole (characteristics evoked in its readers and
watchers) as well as skepticism, envy, and contempt (the reactions
it rains on government of¬cials). No State that bases its legitimacy
on claims of continuity with tradition, that requires citizen self-
sacri¬ce, that depends on a consensus of respect, can prosper for
very long in such an environment. It must either change so as to
become less vulnerable to such assaults, or resort to repression.
Some nation-states do the latter; the liberal democracies, whose
claims to ensure civil liberties are as much a part of their rea-
son for being as any other functions, cannot do this. At best they

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can manipulate information and resort to deception, thus poison-
ing the history on which they themselves must ultimately depend.
This is the province of the “spin doctor” whose role in government
has become correspondingly more important.91

To place the whole responsibility for the state™s crisis of legitimacy
on the shoulders of the media, however, would be mistaken. Bobbitt
concedes the relevance of the other factors “ such as the contemporary
state™s declining ability to ful¬ll the basic responsibilities of assuring
national security (given the advent of new threats) or public welfare
(given the state™s inability to sustain social insurance programs).
Perhaps more important are fundamental changes in governance
structures in the wealthy anglophone democracies over the last thirty
years. Many of these countries have witnessed a weakening of a set
of institutions that once bounded and tempered political con¬‚ict.
In most countries, legislatures declined in in¬‚uence, media elites
were undercut, and the social ties that bound together old govern-
ing establishments frayed.92 At the same time, mass enfranchisement
was extended, either in the strict legal sense that more people were
entitled to participate in political life,93 or in the practical sense that
people were more forceful in using their political rights to demand
a larger share of society™s resources. Good arguments can be made
about the desirability of renovating old governance structures, but
the effect has been to create a situation in which political executives
are compelled to negotiate for power directly with a mass public that
is distrustful of central authority.94
The new terrain is one that, from the point of view of political exec-
utives, is characterized by turbulence and fraught with uncertainties.
It also creates an important new paradox. On the one hand, it compels
governments to move into a state of “permanent campaign,” in which
executives are constantly engaged in an effort to maintain the support
of the mass electorate. (The phrase, coined by Sidney Blumenthal, is
American in origin, but has crossed the Atlantic: The 2003 inquiry
into the role of special advisors concluded that their proliferation
was attributable to the fact that British governments lived in the same
condition.95 ) This reality has a powerful centripetal in¬‚uence within
government. Power over policies that are critical to key portions of
the electorate “ such as health or education “ must be concentrated
at the center; the power to make key political judgments and craft


102
Message Discipline


key messages must be concentrated as well. Recent and widespread
complaints about the “presidentialization” of parliamentary systems
may be a result of this centripetal pressure.96
At the same time, executives face powerful centrifugal pres-
sures. Precisely because they must maintain broad popular support,
governments are unusually susceptible to populist demands for
reforms that check or disperse the power of the executive. This may
include calls for devolution of responsibilities, reform of legislative
and electoral systems, introduction of referendum procedures “ and
more powerful disclosure laws. These reforms, if taken seriously,
weaken the capacity of executives to wage a permanent campaign.
The challenge, therefore, is to ¬nd ways of acknowledging populist
sentiment without actually undercutting the necessary concentration
of political authority. This accounts for the start-and-stop charac-
ter of governments™ handling of disclosure policies, and in particular
for strategies that honor the principle of disclosure while seeking,
as a matter of practice, to minimize its disruptive potential. Govern-
ments maintain a law on the statute books but develop less obvious
techniques “ exclusion of certain institutions, increases to fees, inter-
nal procedures for sensitive requests “ for restricting its actual impact.
The conventional narrative about of¬cial resistance to disclosure
laws typically attributes simple motives “ self-interest, embarrass-
ment “ for such behavior, and in some cases this is enough of an expla-
nation. However, executives are increasingly driven to act as they do
for other reasons, rooted in deep and perhaps irreversible changes in
social and political conditions. Furthermore, their behavior is ratio-
nalized (at least internally) by a roughly articulated story about the
challenges confronting contemporary governments, which is rein-
forced in those forums (such as the OECD) where ministers and of¬-
cials can privately commiserate with one another. Executives, in other
words, have developed their own ideology of resistance, articulated
through continuing efforts at covert subversion of disclosure laws.


Anxiety in Whitehall
The Phillis inquiry™s recommendations unwittingly gave evidence of
the paradox confronting the Blair government. On the one hand,
the inquiry urged departments to develop strong communications


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of¬ces that were closely involved in daily administration, as well as
a ¬rmer central role in overseeing communications functions, in an
effort to assure clearer and better coordinated communications to the
public.97 On the other, it urged a strengthening of the new Freedom
of Information Act, to boost transparency and “active citizenship.”
The report dismissed concerns that the new law might aggravate the
government™s preoccupation with spin:

There are some in government who fear that an effective FOI
regime would worsen relations with the media by providing the
national press with more ammunition with which to attack it.
We do not think this argument can be sustained. Full disclosure
allows context. It is a disincentive to spin (by both sides) as the
public itself will have access to the material and will be able to
form its own view of the accuracy of reporting.98

There is, unfortunately, little evidence from overseas to sustain this
benign view of the likely impact of the new disclosure law. At the
same time there is mounting evidence that of¬cials in Whitehall might
follow the path already trod by other parliamentary governments.
Although the Labour party had advocated for the adoption of
a Freedom of Information Act throughout its long years in oppo-
sition, the Blair government™s enthusiasm waned quickly after the
1997 election. Advocates of a disclosure law noted that a promise on
adoption was conspicuously absent from the government™s ¬rst major
statement of priorities.99 Although a junior minister later produced a
promising discussion paper on the outlines of a disclosure law, Blair™s
powerful Home Secretary, Jack Straw, soon led an effort to weaken
the government™s commitments.100 After its eventual adoption in
December 2000, Blair himself pressed successfully for a four-year
delay in implementation.101
As the government temporized, internal concern about the pres-
sure for openness began to mount. With the new Freedom of Informa-
tion Act in abeyance until 2005, government departments remained
subject to a weaker administrative code promising limited access
to documents that had been adopted by the Conservative govern-
ment in 1994.102 Between 1997 and 2002, journalists and legislators
became increasingly aggressive in using the code; the number of infor-
mation requests from these sources increased eightfold, eventually
accounting for 40 percent of all requests.103 The Cabinet Of¬ce was

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Message Discipline


reported to be particularly unhappy about journalists™ increasing
skill in making “round-robin” requests, in which several departments
received comparable requests for information about internal policy
debates.104
In an internal memorandum written in January 2003, a senior of¬-
cial responsible for implementation of the Freedom of Information
Act reported that at the center of government there was “an increas-
ing level of anxiety” about departmental decisions on requests under
the administrative code, which were felt to compromise the govern-
ment™s ability to assure the secrecy of the policy-making process.105
Throughout 2003 and 2004, of¬cials worked to develop “measures
to ensure consistency” in dealing with dif¬cult requests under the
new law.106 In May 2004, Blair acknowledged that he had established
a special ministerial committee to oversee its implementation.107 In
July 2004, the Mirror newspaper reported that the Blair Cabinet had
agreed to create a central “clearing house” for information requests,

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