Redacting documents – obscuring elements for legal reasons, or because they’re commercially sensitive – is a tricky business. Here are a couple of cautionary tales.
The first goes back a few years to a time when I was working for a company whose directors were preparing a management buy-out. One Friday afternoon they called us into the boardroom, and solemnly passed round copies of a letter about the financial backing that they had lined up. “I cannot overemphasise,” the MD told us in his stern voice, “the importance of keeping the name of our backer secret. If it gets out it could scupper the deal – which is why we’ve blacked it out wherever it comes up in this letter.” There were a few moments of silence as we tried to understand the heavily redacted document. Then the leading representative of the awkward squad piped up: “So, it’s crucial that nobody knows that it’s [Mis-selling Scandals’r’us plc]?” The directors exchanged glances. He’d got the right name, but was it a bluff? “Um, what makes you think that, Tim?” asked the MD tentatively. “Simple,” replied Tim, pointing to the letter. “You missed one.”
The second is more recent. Southwark Council published a document about the redevelopment of the sensationally brutalist Heygate Estate at London’s Elephant and Castle, the dystopian setting for many a TV drama. They were keen that the terms of the deal with the developer should be kept confidential and decided to go down the relatively high-tech route of redacting the document electronically before putting it up on their website. It certainly looks neater than the old-fashioned method, but no one at the council realised that, simply by copy-and-pasting the blacked-out passages into Word, it was possible to read what was underneath – which is exactly what plenty of people with an axe to grind in the matter did.
The lessons? If you’re going to redact something (and with the trend for ‘transparency’ it’s a growth area) you need to check what you’ve done really thoroughly (might we suggest a proofreader?). And, if you are going down the electronic route, you need to follow the appropriate guidance, and ideally get someone who’s tech savvy to road test it before you publish. Alternatively, just use a laundry marker.