Q&A: Chatham House Rule

Posted by Tony Hallett on07.03.2012
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We recently decided to find out more about the Chatham House Rule, so we caught up with Keith Burnet, communications director at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (the organisation many people simply call by the name of the building in which it’s housed – Chatham House). 

Collective Content: When is using the Chatham House Rule most effective?

Keith Burnet: Primarily for slightly smaller meetings and workshops. If you use it for a big conference with 200 people then you’re obviously increasing the chances of people discussing what was said, maybe not even realising it was held under the Rule.

CC: People can exclude themselves, though…

KB: That doesn’t happen much.

CC: The Rule goes back to 1927. What were the revisions about?

KB: The first rule and indeed the second revision quite narrowly referred to events at Chatham House [the organisation’s physical location, on St James’s Square in London] but it was revised to be able to be used for meetings anywhere. It previously hadn’t been particularly helpfully worded for them.

CC: Is it mainly used in English-speaking countries?

KB: It is used internationally, regardless of language, and it is absolutely on the rise. It is the principal that’s important. [On the Chatham House website there are translations into Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish and Russian.]

CC: Do all the users, in all the languages, with different cultures around freedom of speech get it?

KB: Broadly, yes. But as an example we had three people working on the Chinese version, all native speakers, and they all came to subtly different versions. I don’t think they’ve had any major queries or comebacks. The principal is there.

CC: But there is room for misunderstanding?

KB: Sure, but we try to keep it as clear as possible. It is a guide for others who have an event. At Chatham House we have a fairly strict interpretation of how we manage and run events that will be held under the Rule.

CC: It’s just an honours system? There’s no comeback.

KB: I’m aware that on occasion a speaker has had his or her comments leaked to the press in their own country. We write and point out that shouldn’t have happened. But no one has been excluded for over 40 years. By in large people understand.

CC: How about when people are tweeting or using social media from an event?

KB: It’s the same rule. You can let the world know what somebody has said but don’t identify who the person is.

For more information see: http://www.chathamhouse.org/

For part one in this article series click here.

Be sure to catch Collective Content director Tony Hallett’s new e-book, Everything In Moderation – How to chair, moderate and otherwise lead events. It’s available through Amazon and Smashwords.

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