All that was implicit was made explicit

Wendy Bacon Wendy_Bacon
Talk about clamping down on Pub Servants’ social media reminds me of how as journos we used to interview them before access to info stopped
10/04/2014 10:09 am

This tweet reminds me of something I’ve pondered for some time. The modern craze for making the implicit explicit. Its everywhere. Firms and other organisations didn’t have mission statements for most of time, and then began acquiring them starting around the 1980s(?).

Were firms hopelessly adrift before then? We introduced Freedom of Information legislation (about a decade behind the US) in the Fraser years. Has freedom of information improved. Well it’s hard to say – one’s formal rights to information have improved vastly – we had barely any before legislation like the Fraser Government’s legislation and its more recent replacement. And yet journos could ring up public servants and find out what was happening. There would have been strong (implicit) codes of conduct. Public servants wouldn’t be ‘outed’. They would likely have expressed personal views without having to explicitly go ‘on’ and ‘off’ the record as they talked.

Yet we are in a world where government is endlessly performed. And in this world the performer finds the velvet glove of formal transparency requirements the perfect accoutrement to the iron fist inside – the instinct for concealment. Today in most organisations any contact with the media will go through communications people who are trained not to answer questions. And who can blame the organisations? For on the other end of the phone acknowledge little common interest with those they interview beyond the commonplace narcissism which they may share with, or project onto their interviewee. The journalist on the other end is after something to entertain – a ‘story’ – not an explanation of what’s happening.  As Malcolm Turnbull puts it engagingly, they’re the hounds, he’s the fox, their job is to find and kill him and his job is to stay alive.

But the thing I always think of when I think of our mania for making things explicit is disability.  There are any number of ‘rights’ we’ve given the disabled. And we’ve done great things compared to what went before. We’ve made buildings, car parks, all manner of things more accessible to the disabled. We’ve passed laws to prevent discrimination against the disabled. But before all that, in a old world where there was no transparency,  the press engaged in a conspiracy of concealment – but one that was on behalf of the common good, of good government. Remarkably – it’s so far from our current circumstances I must say I can barely imagine it – in a world recognisably modern, in a world full of gutter journalism and dirty political tricks, no-one let on that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a paraplegic.

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2 Responses to All that was implicit was made explicit

  1. Three observations:

    (a) implicit access typically involves privilege — it may be that journalists could ring up and ask questions of a public servant, but a member of the public most certainly could not. In fact, when bloggers were first coming about, there was a lot of that: “Why should I talk to you? You’re a nobody, an amateur, a crank!”

    (b) It’s now common for journalists to seize on specific instances of error and report them as a “story” beat-up instead of contextualising the error within longer-term systemic performance. This means that more and more organisations are motivated to avoid trouble and accountability by asking people to follow a highly rigid process that minimises risk exposure, even if it leads to mediocrity and inefficiency.

    (c) When you see the world in terms of process, the drive to make things explicit is just not typical, it’s necessary. The written word is both a club for compliance and a shield in case of non-compliance.

  2. paul walter says:

    Loved the Wendy Bacon quote.

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