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Fighting a cult of the confidential


The assumption is that if you are in any way sceptical about the Millennium Dome/ sustainable architecture/the carless city/ disabled access/consultation/conservation/ mixed use, you are therefore opposed to them. Not true; it is important to distinguish between scepticism and opposition, and equally important not to assume that scepticism is the same as autopilot cynicism (never forgetting that useful definition of the cynic as a 'frustrated romantic'). The point at which scepticism may turn into opposition is the point where no proper answer is forthcoming to a straightforward question.

Under the current (good) government, we were promised a more open society in which information about public affairs would be made available in the absence of genuine reasons for confidentiality. In reality, as working journalists, we find an extraordinary cloak of secrecy descending over what should be routine matters of reportage. Examples from the last week: a simple enquiry to the New Millennium Commission as to how much new private- sector money has been pledged to the Millennium Dome project prompts the answer, 'We have not announced it yet.' Why not? A simple enquiry to the Sports Council about our forthcoming national stadium, as to which architects have been shortlisted, produces, 'We are not making any announcement yet.' Why not? We ask English Heritage about the cost of the proposed new Stonehenge plans, described by the eh chairman as 'affordable'. How much? 'We are not able to say.' Why not?

Too many government apparatchiks are trying to behave as though they were masters of spin instead of public servants paid to pass over public information on demand. Happily this syndrome is by no means universal. The New Millennium Experience is far too secretive but the Millennium Commission is not. The Department of Culture and John Prescott's detr are professional. The secrecy culprits need only remind themselves that the public is entitled to information because it is paying the piper.

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