Financial Times, 13 April 2016
But disclosure can increase the information asymmetry between ruler and ruled Heather Brooke writes
The clamour for politicians to publish their tax returns has gained momentum in the wake of the Panama Papers leak. But already many are claiming that transparency has gone too far.
There is a valid argument that the British focus on the tax affairs of individual politicians risks overshadowing the larger, and much more important, story revealed by the Panama Papers: that of systemic global corruption, tax avoidance and money-laundering.
However, David Cameron and other politicians do themselves no favours by adapting only grudgingly to the public’s changed expectations. As with MPs’ expenses, the current disclosures were not given willingly but under duress. The prime minister’s initial refusal to address reporters’ enquiries fed suspicion. The question of whether he had any financial dealings with offshore jurisdictions was a legitimate one. His refusal to address this question was, inevitably, followed by a slow drip of disclosures. Such a reluctant response corrodes public faith in politicians and political institutions.
There is now a move to make financial disclosures mandatory for all MPs while some (mostly MPs) say such transparency is an invasion of their privacy. It is worth mentioning that the same argument was made by MPs to withhold details of their expenses.
Transparency is seen as the antidote to corruption because secrecy is, if not its cause, then at least a necessary precondition. This is especially so for corruption involving private enrichment from public goods. Transparency is a power-reducing mechanism so it matters whose affairs are made transparent and for what purpose.
Transparency can help citizens hold the powerful to account; but it can also be used by the powerful to control citizens by making their lives transparent through surveillance. For transparency to be just, it must always be considered in relationship to power. (more…)