Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Hollow words: 'Transparent'
Politicians make light of dark dealings

Sometimes I yearn for the days when "transparent" meant what it is supposed to mean - see-through or allowing light to pass. Unfortunately in the Eighties it was adopted by managerial-speak and turned into a cliche. Politicians and their advisers quickly embraced it and it has become a word that effortlessly trips off their tongues. In an era of sleaze and scandal it is important to convey the idea that everything is as it seems.

But as we now know, frequent repetition of the term transmits the signal that it ain't so. Jack Straw boasts that his government made party donations transparent by insisting that they should be publicly declared. Which is why New Labour has asked its backers for loans rather than donations. Loans do not have to be declared so they are transparent, if a little dodgy.

Little light is allowed to pass and little is clarified by such usage. This is a word that has no substantive content. That is why transparent is often used as an add-on idiom that reinforces an equally feeble companion word, accountable. Appending transparent to accountable does not clarify meaning. It merely indicates that the speaker really means business.

The frequency with which public figures acclaim their belief in anything that is transparent and accountable is a testimony to the victory of rhetoric over content. The use of expressions such as "open and transparent", "transparent and precise" or "fair and transparent" indicates that there is a steady demand for rhetoric that can pass as meaningful statements of values.

In reality transparency possesses no special virtues. When you look beneath the bombast it turns into another word for an optical illusion.

First published on The First Post, 23 March 2006