The Chatham House Rule
The other day there's been a bit of a media sensation about comments attributed to Australian Broadcasting Corporation chairwoman Ita Buttrose made at a meeting. Quotes have been attributed to her about her views on the millennial generation:
You have to understand that they seem to lack the resilience that I remember from my younger days
I don't really want to get into the whole generational wars because I think sweeping generalizations about entire generations, especially those pitting them against each other, isn't a particularly productive thing to do. But what I do want to talk about here is a matter of discourse and journalism, since I think it is a good thing for people to have open discussions about topics, if people end up in their own filter bubbles with regards to generational issues and can't openly discuss matters with other groups then we lose a great opportunity to learn and actually fix some of these issues. So I find this to be especially questionable journalism because the meeting was held under the Chatham House Rule. This disclaimer for example featured in the article published by The Age:
She was speaking under the Chatham House Rule; The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age did not attend but sources who dialled in relayed some of her comments.
Firstly it it happens to be the case that people have disregarded the rules with this discussion I think it's not good they are quoting people's positions to the media anonymously themselves, this strikes me as hypocritical. Part of why I think this article may mislead some readers is because they may not be familiar with this specific format of discussion and the moral code that applies around it. After asking around my network I found some people had heard of this and many had not. If you didn't know about this form of discussion/debate you might put the regular amount of weight on these quotes as if someone had said them on the record.
The rule is as follows:
When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.
There's a lot of reasons I think that having a discussion under these rules can be good, especially on potentially contentious issues that wouldn't be discussed at all otherwise. There's fewer avenues available for people to have a good natured discussion or debate in order to learn more about topics these days because people are increasingly afraid of having their positions held against them. Specifically there's a particularly nasty issue that comes about where people don't reveal their true preferences towards a subject because of external pressures, this is known as preference falsification. This can become quite a large problem when you have a democracy or other system of governance where decisions are made that aren't actually anyone's preference but happen anyway because people don't actually have any means to reval what their preferences actually are. This can manifest itself in decisions that the vast majority of people don't want because they don't realize the majority of people also share their position. When this happens you get the possibility of huge instability where a seemingly small event triggers off a landslide of change because people find out each others true preferences. In these situations of rapid change people sometimes think a broad scale shift of opinion has happened when really it's just the revelation of previously widely held opinions that weren't able to be expressed. The reason the Chatham House Rule is useful is because broader preference discovery can't happen with private discussions where revealing what was said is completely forbidden. The easier it is for outsiders to personally attack people based on a position they hold the more value there can be in having a discussion under the Chatham House Rule.