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Keeping up appearances

Charles Miller

edits this blog. Twitter: @chblm

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It's many decades since the comedian George Burns remarked that: "Sincerity is everything. If you can fake that, you've got it made." But today, when transparency is a shiny new virtue, the idea that what's said in public may not be entirely sincere is hard to accept.

The Telegraph's reporters gathered and published comments which ministers believed - however foolishly - were private. If Telegraph readers felt a little uneasy about the intrusive journalism, they probably also felt the paper could, at least in part, justify what it had done by the 'hypocrisy' it had exposed: what ministers said to the fake constituents did not square with what they were saying in public.

It's a theme familiar from that other great journalistic enterprise of bringing private communications into public, Wikileaks. Is it news that secret diplomatic messages contain comments that would not have been made in public? Probably not, but their publication creates a story from the flurry of resulting reactions, apologies and explanations. 

And, again, there's a perception that something is wrong if private comments cause such problems when made public. There is a peculiarly modern reaction against any kind of communication that can be seen as 'two-faced'.

Time magazine's Person of the Year, Mark Zuckerberg, is in tune with this sensibility. His idea for Facebook, as Time points out, took the internet beyond its early days as a place where people could lead secret parallel lives (remember the famous New Yorker cartoon of two mutts in front of a computer: 'on the internet, nobody knows you're a dog'?).

Facebook was revolutionary because it was designed not to produce 'unsocialised' online personalities, free to indulge in illicit fantasies. Instead, it wanted you to be yourself and bring your friends online.

There are concerns about privacy - or should that be simply about self-revelation? - but they are part of a general process of getting used to the idea that the internet is creating a record of parts of our lives in return for the benefits it offers. In doing so, it brings together our work lives with what we used to call our private lives - and they had better fit together.

As Lev Grossman's profile of Zuckerberg puts it:

"Anonymity may allow people to reveal their true selves, but maybe our true selves aren't our best selves. Facebook makes cyberspace more like the real world: dull but civilized. The masked ball period of the internet is ending. Where people led double lives, real and virtual, now they lead single ones again."

But you don't have to be a geek to want to be relaxed about people knowing about the various parts of your life. The super-investor Warren Buffett has built his reputation and his fortune on his personal integrity. His advice to managers of his companies is to act in a way that would leave them comfortable if their every decision was plastered on the front page of a newspaper.

Lord Sugar has his own version of this idea when he claims in the title of his autobiography that 'What you see is what you get'.

So are the worlds of politics and diplomacy the last to recognise the new sensibility?

Arguably, politics is different, insofar as the government is a collective enterprise in which big egos have to agree to go along with many decisions they didn't really want for the sake of a greater good.

In that sense, perhaps, it is as stuck as a world in which 'keeping up appearances' will always be required, and where what you see and what you get will never be quite the same.

Which leaves journalists with a job for life, however transparent the rest of the world becomes.


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