2016 Review #6 The History of Secrecy by Tiffany Jenkins

Shall I tell you a secret? Each episode of Tiffany Jenkins’ five-part radio series The History of Secrecy (Radio 4, Dec 19-23rd) was interesting, but the major effect was cumulative. By the end, two clear messages had emerged. The first was that secrecy is always a double-edged sword, the second that society’s attitude to secrecy has shifted markedly in the last hundred years.

Jenkins’ approach was, rightly, very even-handed. Through examination of different kinds of secrecy – for example in the family and in the state – she showed that we all require secrets. States obviously need to keep secrets for purposes of national security; families and individuals need secrets to maintain their own freedoms and integrity. Jenkins clearly demonstrated that secrecy can be positive and liberating: her examples of the illegitimate child, the cross-dressing man, Bletchley Park, all depend on the freedom of secrecy if they are to fulfil their opportunities. On the other hand, a culture of secrecy may keep dark matters that ought to be brought to light. The phenomenon of child abuse and historic sex scandals, for example, was not overtly mentioned, presumably because it was too vast a subject for these 15-minute programmes, but the shadow loomed over all that was said.

Our attitudes to secrecy, moreover, have changed over time. From a historical position of delighting in secrets, and operating a ‘culture of honourable secrecy’ in professional life, we have moved towards greater and greater ‘transparency’, and a belief that secrets are somehow shameful and almost automatically hint at wrong-doing. We live in a confessional age where openness is seen as a virtue. A feature of Jenkins’ analysis was that it revealed how we have lost as much as we have gained from this shift in attitudes.

The greatest virtue of the series, as with her recent book about museums, Keeping Their Marbles, was that it left the listener with enduring questions, and opened up lines of thought that cry out for much more extended examination. Her comment that ‘nobody speaks of a right to secrecy’, in contrast to our obsessive debates about rights to privacy, immediately invites us to ponder the relationship between the two. Are privacy and secrecy different concepts? If so, where do they overlap and how are they related? Is the shift in societal attitudes to secrecy a positive tendency, or are there negative aspects that have the paradoxical effect of reducing our freedoms rather than enhancing them? Above all, what is ‘secrecy’ at all? Is having a secret the same as having a culture of secrecy? One of the outcomes of this series was to suggest that a useful distinction might be developed between the two.

Like all good broadcasts these programmes will resonate, and invite us to look at the world of 2017 with better-focused minds.