Leslie Cannold: Writer, Commentator, Ethicist, Researcher
ARTICLES

Let’s Get Rid of the Cloak and Dagger

Transparency. In recent years, journalists, politicians and medical researchers have joined lawyers and judges in accepting formal obligations to either disclose personal or financial links they have with those they report on or serve, to divest themselves of those links or to recuse themselves.

This makes it odd then that, when it comes to government inquiries, the moral obligations we all have to disclose, divest or recuse where conflicts of interests exist, remain optional. I’ve given evidence at a fair few inquiries and hearings, and while within the hearing room the affiliations of certain witnesses-relevant links that may reveal fiscal or moral conflicts of interest – are poorly-kept secrets, what happens in the hearing room stays in the hearing room. When the final report appears only those credentials that witnesses choose to disclose, rather than all those the public might deem relevant, appear in print.

But this may be set to change, with a new report on by the UK Science and Technology Committee confronting the issue of witness transparency directly.

It all started when the Committee, appointed by the House of Commons, undertook an investigation of scientific developments relating to the Abortion Act of 1967. When submissions began arriving members noticed that some doctors were opining on and interpreting evidence in areas in which they had neither practiced, researched nor published. Turns out, most of these contributions were from individuals who had a history of active campaigning against a woman’s right to choose.

In line with its own previously articulated recommendations on evidence-based policy-making, the committee swung into action, requiring all witnesses to come clean and, in keeping with “accepted practice in the scientific community,” disclose all relevant interests and expertise, including previous publication of strong views on abortion, or membership of organizations campaigning on the issue.

All hell broke loose. Some pro-lifers did come clean (Australia’s own John Fleming, who in Australian debates on abortion tends to describe himself as Dr Fleming from the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute, added that he was also a Catholic Priest and President of Campion College, itself linked with Christendom College whose mission is to make Christ’s teachings the law of the land). But others refused, claiming to fear that the truth would see their views discounted. Refusing to listen to the Committee’s commitment that they would not, they insisted on their entitlement to deny the public and lawmakers the whole truth about who they were and where they came from.

At the heart of concerns about transparency are those about autonomy, the Greek roots of which mean self-rule. To rule our lives we need full and accurate information on which to base our decisions. Conflict of interest disclosures help us decide how much weight to give to the opinions and evidence offered us by those claiming to know. Ignorance of all relevant facts about those seeking to influence us undermines the integrity of our decisions, weakening our grip on our lives. Because it may have been the case that if we had known the whole truth about the person whose words and facts swayed us, we might not have given them so much weight – and chosen differently – after all.

It is imperative that government inquiries in Australia follow the UK lead and demand transparency from all those seeking to inform and influence decision-makers and citizens about issues of public importance. No more cloak and dagger. We need transparency. Evidence-based policy decision-making simply can’t happen without it.

Publication History

Moral Maze: Let's Get Rid of the Cloak and Dagger, The Sun Herald
10 Feb 2008

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