It says on its website that ‘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’. But does revealing where you heard the information also constitute a breach? For example, someone might say: ‘I was at the Marketing Group of Great Britain dinner at Claridge’s and, apparently, Heston Blumenthal’s range is going great guns.’ Surely this could allow the inference to be drawn that either Justin King, Philip Clarke or Marc Bolland was the speaker?
The Chatham House Rule is an ingenious device that, while purporting to rely on the honour of its participants, in fact depends for its success on a kind of mass betrayal. It allows speakers to reveal opinions, facts, pseudo-facts and gossip that, when more widely known, may be greatly to their personal advantage; while, at the same time, protecting them from any accusation that they have done any such thing. I like to think of it as a quintessentially English invention.
A moment’s thought should reveal why such a device is necessary. Private dining clubs need to attract eminent speakers. These are extremely busy people who already spend four evenings a week away from their families. The last thing they need is another dressed-up dinner in the company of a hundred individuals they hope never to meet again; to whom they’ll be expected to speak entertainingly for half-an-hour and then patiently reply to rhetorical questions whose only purpose is to display the wit and social status of the questioner.
These eminent speakers get nothing whatever in return other than an adequate meal and a careful glass or two of wine. So why, in God’s name, do they accept?
They accept because they are told that the members of this club and their guests are some of the most influential opinion leaders in the country; and that, because the club adheres to the Chatham House Rule, the speaker is free to speak entirely fearlessly.
The inference is clear: say exactly what you like about Michael Gove, Prince Charles, Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel, Jeremy Clarkson, fracking, feminism or interest rates – and your words will go no further than the hundred or so individuals present to hear them. On being told all this, most eminent persons will agree to speak; but not, please note, because they believe these reassurances – indeed, precisely because they don’t.
If their words went no further, there would be absolutely no point in their agreeing to speak freely to such an insignificant audience. The only thing that’s in it for them is the chance to grind their axe or air their grievance so entertainingly that every one of those present will want to pass it on – in confidence, naturally – to at least three of their closest friends; who, in turn, will want to pass it on – in confidence, naturally – to at least three of their closest friends; who, in turn…
This delightfully flexible application of the Chatham House Rule has meant that anecdotes, opinions and, above all, indiscretions have been going wildly viral since long before the internet was invented; and with one overriding advantage. There are no Tweets and there’s no e-mail trail. The word spreads, almost certainly with ever-increasing incremental emphasis, yet leaves no trace.
What a number of eminent speakers have spectacularly failed to appreciate, however, is that this process is content-neutral. If a speaker is a self-congratulatory boor, oozing ignorance and condescension in equal measure, half the relevant world will know about it within the week and the other half a few days later. In confidence, naturally.
An agency chief writes: Dear Jeremy, I still drink at lunchtime and I still smoke. In the current climate, should I try to hide these traits from my colleagues and clients?
No. Flaunt them. It’s far too soon to know if Nigel Farage has permanently reconfigured the European political landscape but he has already made the fag and the pint admirable again. If his 2015 manifesto leads with the reintroduction of smoking in pubs, he could go all the way.
‘Ask Jeremy’, a collection of Jeremy Bullmore’s Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10.Telephone (020) 8267 4919
Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via firstname.lastname@example.org or Campaign, Teddington Studios, Broom Road, Teddington, TW11 9BE