Open secrets

A culture of suppressing scandals festers at the heart of public life

Did you hear about the minister whose behaviour was so notorious he had to be locked in his hotel room on a foreign delegation? Or the other minister with a well-known propensity for cocaine? How about parliament’s serial bullies, gropers and racists?

Of course, not all of them are politicians. Many are beloved actors, presenters and showbiz personalities, hiding in plain sight. The Oscar winner who had a reputation for being inappropriate around young men but continued to make box-office films. The leading producer who would routinely use his power to coerce and rape young women. The much-beloved TV and radio star who built a persona around his “weirdness”, and even faced police questioning while alive, but went to the grave a knight of the realm and national treasure.

You may or may not have heard about these people. You may know about many more than I do. But except for the last three I can’t write about them here, and you can’t read about them.

Of course, we all know about that particular trio: Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein and Jimmy Savile. These men’s misdemeanours are now fully in the public domain. We may think “we always knew,” and at one point we may have heard and talked of little else. And yet the truth is that, before they were named, while some people knew and talked about them privately, most people were oblivious. Like the anonymous ministers, their identities and actions operated as something quite specific: an open secret.

These are the pieces of information – often scurrilous, often highly significant – that everyone in a certain group seems to know about, but which nobody ever publishes. They’re the currency of any media or political social event, and entirely absent from public discourse.

Sometimes the secrecy is understandable. There are good reasons why revelations about high-profile rapists take so long to emerge. Savile and Weinstein were immensely powerful men who gaslit their victims and terrified them into silence. The people they abused knew the potential consequences of revealing what had happened to them, either to the police or the press.

And of course, not everyone knows. Open secrets can work in reverse. Often, after a particularly heinous figure’s exposure, their friends and family face a kind of guilt, if not by association then through innuendo. “They must have known”, so the whisper goes. And yet open secrets beguile by their very nature. Sometimes total strangers may be privy to information that is concealed from close relatives.

This is not about moralising or prurience – or witch-hunts. And it is not about outing TV presenters on the front pages for having an affair or snorting a line. It is about ensuring standards in public life and justice for victims of crime.

It is also about the control of information and the culture of hoarding power: about matters in the public interest held back from the public, and who benefits.

After the dam breaks, we see the full extent of a secret and its openness: everyone seems to have known, everyone seems to have talked. If you didn’t, you can’t have been interesting or important enough to be in the loop. The newspapers marvel about how the story stayed hidden for so long.

Open secrets share similarities with gossip but serve a separate and specific function. Whereas gossip exists to titillate or entertain, an open secret serves as a barrier or shibboleth. Its information is not there to be spread but to be already known – the demonstration of one’s own place within a system of power.

A big element of this, of course, is about litigation. Britain has notoriously strict libel laws. They have frequently stifled necessary public debate, and frightened whistle-blowers away from bringing vital knowledge to public attention. And yet few would deny the necessity of some legal recourse. As Shakespeare observed, our reputation is the immortal part of ourselves: we would not love a society in which someone else could, on the basis of unsubstantiated rumour, throw it away.

Moreover, many “open secrets” are in fact total lies. The whispered story about an alleged paedophile ring in Westminster in the 1980s named numerous former Tory MPs and peers, destroying reputations. It was subsequently found to be a figment of one man’s imagination, and he went to prison.

And yet litigation is only really a problem in the absence of evidence. You can claim something about anyone if you are confident you can prove it. This is where power really comes into its own.

I have heard credible stories from credible sources that would bring down major public figures in an instant. But I don’t have proof and can’t do anything about it. And yet other people do have proof – lots of it. That is the reason we now know about scandals as diverse as #MeToo and Partygate. Eventually people talked, and they brought evidence.

Hundreds of people necessarily had proof of the lockdown parties for eighteen months and sat on it, for one reason only: it was in their interests to do so. The sources who eventually spoke to journalists Pippa Crerar and Paul Brand could have done so at any time from May 2020. They chose not to until, for whatever reason, it became convenient, useful or necessary. That is, it originally served their purposes to keep the secret, and then, to spread it.

There will currently be dozens of spectacular scandals we don’t know about, and perhaps never will, because it will never be in the interests of those who have that knowledge to share it.

Those potential hand grenades will be tossed around cocktail parties until people grow bored or the subjects move on.

Really, however, this goes beyond individuals. It is about the establishment, which survives through secrecy – the secrecy not just of its members but its own workings.

Sometimes, individuals want to report something and the “system” puts the brakes on. Victims of sexual violence frequently report that police do not believe them or treat their complaints with contempt. Political parties, meanwhile, close ranks to protect their own.

But it is also about the media. Newspapers can choose what to print and what to conceal.Some journalists, like party whips, may find it agreeable to leverage useful information or save it for a rainy day. Meanwhile, a ruthlessly policed omertà ensures that journalists and political insiders do not tell on each other. Many will fear mutually assured destruction if they do. Senior journalists function as gatekeepers both of public information and their social tribe.

The media holds huge power over both the public and people in the public eye, but the establishment as a whole exists to preserve its own power. Open secrets can both sustain and destroy it.

The establishment is created and defined through the information only its members know: these secrets are what distinguish it from everyone else. It is less the information itself than the fact it must stay guarded. Without the accumulation of these secrets – the intimate knowledge of power – the establishment cannot exist.

The minute an open secret becomes open knowledge, it becomes democratised but also de-fanged: the damage it threatened has come to pass and the people who held its explosive contents have now relinquished them. In this way, open secrets encourage the holders both to keep them and let them go.

In the end, this concentration of power feels unsustainable. This is the age of supposed transparency and accountability; one rule for all. The interests of those who decline to expose our leaders are in direct opposition with the interests of the public, who require that they do.

Open secrets are not simply a question of the “in” and “out” crowd, in which the political circles of Westminster and middle-class dinners of north London guard the secrets that the “little people” will never learn. It goes to the core of how we are governed.

If we don’t do anything to change this culture, it will fester and metastasise, breeding the contempt of those in power and the mistrust of those they govern – and the scandals will multiply. The public has a right to know who its leaders and beloved figures are – and the people who know have a duty to tell them.

Jonathan Lis is a political journalist and commentator. He has written for publications including the Guardian, Prospect and Washington Post, and regularly broadcasts on television and radio

Current Affairs

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