Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Guardian's George Monbiot calls for 'Freedom of Information'

In his Guardian column, George Monbiot calls for 'freedom of information' as it would make companies 'think twice before misbehaving'.

In this column I will make a proposal that sounds – at first – monstrous, but I hope to persuade you is both reasonable and necessary: that freedom of information laws should be extended to the private sector. 
The very idea of a corporation is made possible only by a blurring of the distinction between private and public. Limited liability socialises risks that would otherwise be carried by a company's owners and directors, exempting them from the costs of the debts they incur or the disasters they cause. The bailouts introduced us to an extreme form of this exemption: men like Fred Goodwin and Matt Ridley are left in peace to count their money while everyone else must pay for their mistakes. 
So I am asking only for the exercise of that long-standing Conservative maxim – no rights without responsibilities. If you benefit from limited liability, the public should be permitted to scrutinise your business. 
Companies already have certain obligations towards transparency, such as the publication of financial statements and annual reports. But these tell us only a little of what we need to know.... 
The principle of corporate transparency is already established in English law.... 
Freedom of information is never absolute, nor should it be. Companies should retain the right, as they do in South Africa, to protect material that is of genuine commercial confidentiality; though they should not be allowed to use that as an excuse to withhold everything that might embarrass them. The information commissioner should decide where the line falls, just as he does for public bodies today.
For banks, ultra transparency recognizes that the secret sauce in underwriting sound loans should be subject to commercial confidentiality.  What the loan exposure is however, should be fully disclosed.
The purpose of this monstrous proposal is not just to shine a light into the rattling cupboards of private companies, but to change the way in which they behave. A body that acts as if the world is watching presents less of a threat to the public interest than a body that knows it won't get caught... 
If it is true that "governments don't rule the world, Goldman Sachs rules the world", should we not be entitled to know what Goldman Sachs is up to? Is that not the only means we have of preventing its unelected power from becoming tyrannical? 
I realise that it is not a good time to be making this request: far from extending our transparency laws, Cameron hints that he wants to roll them back. But unless we decide what we want and how we mean to obtain it – however remote it might now seem – we have no means of making social progress. If we are to reclaim power from the corporations that have seized it, first we need to know what that power looks like.

No comments: