BIG BROTHER AND THE PEOPLE’S RIGHT TO KNOW

The threat and fear of Big Brother contributed to the rise of the right to know. (Photograph by 20th Century Fox)

Transparency scholars and advocates have often said that freedom of information laws are a reaction to a growth in government – something I’ve found can be seen at the very beginnings of the modern right to know movement.

In a 2015 paper, public administration professor Alasdair Roberts wrote that such growth happens “either because the country confronts some new challenge, or has the opportunity to adopt some new technology of administration. These movements create risks, such as the possibility that an expanded or more complex bureaucracy might slip from the legislative or public control. Sometimes there are scandals or abuses that give evidence of these new risks. Then there is a countermovement, concerned with the imposition of openness requirements and procedural checks,” which include transparency measures such as freedom of information laws.1Alasdair Roberts, “Too much transparency? How critics of openness misunderstand administrative development,” (paper prepared for the Fourth Global Conference on Transparency Research, Lugano, Switzerland, June 4-6, 2015).

In the United States, just such a countermovement began in earnest in the early 1950s, as journalists, politicians and others started expressing concerns about the “omnipotent administration” of the “superstate,” which was “so vividly pictured by George Orwell in his novel 1984.”2House Committee on Government Operations, Twenty-Fifth Intermediate Report of the Committee on Government Operations, 74. That countermovement included the publication of The People’s Right to Know. Commissioned by the American Society of News Editors in October 1950 and printed three years later by Columbia University Press, it was the first “scholarly, legally documented presentation on the subject” of freedom of information in the United States.3James S. Pope, Forward to The People’s Right to Know: Legal Access to Public Records and Proceedings by Harold L. Cross (New York: Columbia University Press, 1953), ix.

The 405-page book “nearly sold out within a week of its publication date,” despite a weighty US$5.50 price tag – just over $50 in today’s money.4J.R. Wiggins, “An arsenal of arguments for the right to know,” Washington Post, April 26, 1953. Reviewing the book in the Washington Post, the paper’s managing editor James R. Wiggins remarked that such popularity wasn’t surprising since it contained “information so essential to the exercise of a fundamental right.”5J.R. Wiggins, “An arsenal of arguments for the right to know,” Washington Post, April 26, 1953. Yet it was New York Times general Louis M. Loeb who offered the most insight into that purported popularity. In his own review of the book, Loeb described it as a timely and helpful text because its publication coincided with Americans’ search for a  “new balance” between “the citizen and his Government owing to the tremendously enlarged field in which the Government enters the life of every citizen”6Louis M. Loeb, “The Need for Facts,” New York Times, May 17, 1953. – foretelling one of the principle arguments that would be made in favour of the public’s right to know.

References   [ + ]

1. Alasdair Roberts, “Too much transparency? How critics of openness misunderstand administrative development,” (paper prepared for the Fourth Global Conference on Transparency Research, Lugano, Switzerland, June 4-6, 2015).
2. House Committee on Government Operations, Twenty-Fifth Intermediate Report of the Committee on Government Operations, 74.
3. James S. Pope, Forward to The People’s Right to Know: Legal Access to Public Records and Proceedings by Harold L. Cross (New York: Columbia University Press, 1953), ix.
4, 5. J.R. Wiggins, “An arsenal of arguments for the right to know,” Washington Post, April 26, 1953.
6. Louis M. Loeb, “The Need for Facts,” New York Times, May 17, 1953.

2 thoughts on “BIG BROTHER AND THE PEOPLE’S RIGHT TO KNOW

  1. Dean Beeby

    Amazing research, Sean – the roots of FOI go back much farther than I imagined. Thanks so much for the digging. I will be first in line to buy your forthcoming book.

    Dean Beeby
    Ottawa

    Reply

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