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Chatham House Rule: what does it mean?

I recently attended an event where the host reminded the audience in his opening that the day was being run under the Chatham House Rule. It reminded me of the first event that I attended when I started out in practice. I hadn’t understood what this rule meant, and in a time before a smartphone would have facilitated a response through a quick internet search, I was too embarrassed to raise the question for fear of being seen as ignorant.

Chatham House is the home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London and the Chatham House Rule originated here in 1927, with subsequent revisions in 1992 and 2002. The Rule, and there is but one rule and not multiple rules, is:

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.

This Rule can and is used globally, meetings do not have to take place at, or have any affiliation with Chatham House, to be held under the Rule.

This Rule allows those attending to speak openly in the meeting to express their views, which may be their own and not those of the organisation that they represent. The content of these views can be shared externally but they must not be attributed to an individual or organisation. Nor should they be shared in any way that makes them attributable to an individual through context.

One of the means of limiting this attribution is to keep the attendance list confidential beyond those attending the event. The scheduled speakers will often be shared in advance as part of the publicity and advertising for the event. If this is the case, these speakers are not then confidential, so extra care should be taken to ensure that information shared is not attributable back to any of these individuals or the organisations that they work for.

In 1927 it is relatively easy to imagine how this Rule would work in practice, but in this age of transparency and social media, how well can it really work?

The Rule has been, and continues to be successful as it is seen as ‘morally binding’. While there is limited legal redress if this Rule is breached, exclusion from similar events going forward is the usual sanction and the importance of being seen to do the right thing and personal reputation means that most don’t step outside of the lines (and take a very cautious approach to staying within them). For those who use social media, the Rule can be followed as long as the person tweeting or messaging reports only what was said at an event and does not identify – either directly or indirectly – the speaker or another participant. That can be a tricky call to make when information is interesting and new, and most tend to err on the side of caution.

The next time that you are attending an event or a meeting under the Chatham House Rule, remember that this does not mean that ‘what is said in the room, stays in the room’- a common misconception. What you say can be shared, so long as the person sharing it doesn’t directly or indirectly attribute it to you or your organisation.

Lynsey Poulton

3 thoughts on “Chatham House Rule: what does it mean?

    1. This is essentially the ‘Vegas rule’, i.e. what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

      It is simply a confidentiality undertaking between those involved rather than any formal rule such as the Chatham House rule.

  1. Perfect, straightforward summary. I have attended many functions subject to the Chatham House Rule. My comments have thereafter been quoted in minutes and meeting reports and in other publications concerning the events, all without attribution. Attendees abide by the Rule without compulsion.

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