The exercise of covert power is necessary, and not bad by definition. Most organisations could not operate without the ability to debate and make key decisions in private.

But there is no question of the public interest in knowing about how and why largely unknown people exert vast influence on decisions that affect society.

The current News Corp phone-hacking scandal has revealed more about covert power in Britain than all the investigative journalism that sits in that company’s newspaper archives. What it disclosed was the existence of a state within a state, whose media power created fear, awe and intimidation among the country’s most senior politicians, bureaucrats and police. If that was the situation in a country where News Corp controls about 40% of major newspapers, how could it not be the situation in a country where the same company controls about 70% of the mainstream press?

On an entirely different scale are society-affecting decisions made by political powerbrokers, editors, CEOs, bankers, prime ministers, lobbyists, senior public servants, judges, cabinet ministers, police commissioners, regulators and all those other people with a pass code to the levers of power. Most of those people, and their decisions, are far from malicious. But that doesn’t mean they should occur without scrutiny or that their context and motivation isn’t something that should be known to those of us without a pass code.

So who are these power brokers? What’s their modus operandi? And why do they matter?

The first thing to realise about the dispensation of power is that it operates mainly in the shadows. Most of the tools of trade — inducement, compromise, promises, flattery, coercion, threats, favours and even goodwill — require the door to be closed. The exercise of power and influence is rarely a public event.

So who belongs to this subterranean class? To a large extent, they are long-serving members of tiny cliques who are interconnected through trusted networks of shared history and mutual interest. Some of them hold important positions, which is the chief source of their power. Others are influential through their talent for powerbroking, or a reputation for having a lot of power. Some do it because they are inveterate networkers. Others wield power as representatives of sectional interests such as unions or industry groups. Others are powerful because they are extremely rich. Some powerbrokers are just bullies.

High office only gets you so far, as the predicament of the current prime minister confirms. Technically, she holds the most powerful position in the country, yet in reality she is one lower house vote away from oblivion, she must genuflect to the independents and Greens, she has to be nice to her predecessor, she commands little respect in the electorate, she is despised by the business community and she carries minimal personal gravitas. Hardly the ingredients of a powerful political leader.

To the extent they share personal characteristics, the power elite are uncommonly bright, intellectually dexterous, verbally adroit, hugely persistent, agile, passionate and tough as nails. Very few of them possess a below-average ego. Many of them possess an above-average libido.

The real key to success in the power business is execution (sometimes literally). Effective powerbrokers deploy a range of techniques to achieve their objectives. They not only exert influence, they trade influence. They often speak in their own dialects and negotiate outcomes in their own currencies. They work the phone incessantly. They flatter and cajole and sometimes use blackmail and thuggery. They leave important messages unsaid. They know how to command respect, and not only out of fear.

Some are motivated by good intentions, others by the adrenalin rush of wielding power, usually it’s a convenient blend of both.

The real significance of behind-the-scenes power in public affairs is its behind-the-scenes location. Critical decisions are made or influenced by people who are never held accountable for those decisions, or whose fingerprints are invisible, yet most of us don’t know who they are or what motivates them.

It’s time that we all found out.

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