Freedom of Information – Nothing left to lose?

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It was both instructive and helpful of Irish Times columnist Noel Whelan in his column today to explain the recent controversy over Freedom of Information in Ireland, and government hostility to freedom of information, in terms of the British TV series Yes Minister.

Instructive because it illustrates why you have a wide and vocal consensus in Ireland against the default government stance on freedom of information, but no such consensus when it comes to the default government stance on free education, or free healthcare, or universality in public services on the whole. Helpful because it is a much better illustration than I would have otherwise come up with.

Documentary maker Adam Curtis, in The Trap, showed how the writers of Yes Minister were inspired by public choice economics, by the idea that the possibilities for democratic government were limited, because of the self-serving ambitions of politicians and officials exercising immediate control over public institutions. Thus Yes Minister helped to popularise the idea of government as inevitably antagonistic -regardless of the ideological hue of the party in power- to the interests of the public at large and the individualised projects for freedom and wealth that any member of the public might hold.

The popularising of this idea was to prove especially valuable during the Thatcher years and beyond, during which time the neoliberal project sought to dynamite the collective solidarities that had decisively shaped British society through public institutions such as the National Health Service and other nationalised industries. Similarly, on the other side of the Atlantic, ‘big government’ was held aloft by Reagan as the chief enemy of the people.

Precisely because it is concerned with the concentration of decisive social power in the hands of unelected elites who operate above and beyond the political arena, neoliberalism has a thick streak of anti-government populism, intended to foster cynicism and resignation in the population at large when it comes to politics.

The uncritical idea that ‘all politicians are the same’ -when it carries the unspoken corollary that democratic politics is impossible- expresses just the kind of populist sentiment that is prized by neoliberalism: human nature, according to this view of the world, means that we are doomed to be forever ruled by self-serving crooks and liars. The only thing that can be done is to allow this natural propensity for helping oneself at the expense of others to be harnessed for the good of society as a whole.

In Ireland, the crisis of the last five years has produced a remarkable amount of media attention dedicated to the nefarious activities of public institutions, public servants, and especially politicians, and precious little about the economic system and the ruling interests of the society in which they operate.

A great deal of the coverage shares the Yes Minister view of politics: as a game of self-seeking insiders. Public institutions are habitually presented as bureaucratic monstrosities that operate only in the interests of the mandarins and faceless jobsworths who run them.

Public servants -nurses, social workers, civil servants, teachers, and their unions- work to bleed ‘the taxpayer’ -a mythical figure whose view of the world largely coincides with the ideal reader of the Irish Independent- of everything they can get, since deep down, what is happening is a war of all against all.

It is in this context that Freedom of Information takes on particular importance. In a media landscape where immense power and influence rests with offshore billionaires, Freedom of Information legislation is a handy, publicly subsidised means of finding out just how many gilded toilets the rogues in the permanent government are installing, and just how many sick days those greed-fuelled HSE employees are taking off to laugh at the taxpayer’s expense.

None of this is to disparage the excellent work done by many who use FOI requests for the purposes of real investigative journalism, and for informing the public about just what it is public authorities are doing in its name.

Nor is it to suggest that the attempt to end freedom of information de facto is anything other than an outrage. Ireland declares itself a democratic state. At the bare minimum, this means that the demos must know how it is being served by its public institutions, and Freedom of Information is a bare minimum -a minimum- for this to be possible.

We are dealing here, in fact, with a government, and a Labour Party, that shares the Yes Minister view of the world to such an extent that it hires special advisers at exceptional pay rates from the private sector because it cannot trust the conniving bureaucrats of the public sector.

The problem is that the reason the OECD and other neoliberal outfits support Freedom of Information is precisely because the concept of a democratic State -as expressed in the Irish constitution- should be interpreted as minimally as possible.

Therefore, effective control exercised by private powers over public institutions would fall outside such an interpretation of a democratic State. So too would the scope of public institutions -for health, education, welfare, and so on. There is no contradiction per se between liberal Freedom of Information provisions and the commodification of healthcare, or education, or water, or housing, in ways that violate what might otherwise be basic norms of democratic equality. In fact, for certain neoliberal ideologues, that is the whole point.

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