Credit where none is due

Plenty of good material on Bush, Blair and the Al-Jazeera memo out there with honourable mentions going out to Bloggerheads, Blairwatch and one of Scaryduck’s alter egos, Robber Rabbit – must also mention Don’t Bomb Us, a blog by Al-Jazeera staffers.

Meanwhile, over at the Observer, Peter Preston is keen to draw parallels between the Attorney General’s use of section 5 of the Official Secrets Act 1989 to suppress media coverage of the memo and the ‘Spycatcher Affair‘ in which the Grauniad/Observer were central players, even though any connection between the two is tenuous at best – and Spycatcher turned out to be a rather tedious book anyway.

The story that is relevant to this issue is that of former civil servant, Clive Ponting and the ‘Belgrano Affair‘, which led directly to the introduction of the 1989 Official Secrets Act.

Without going too deeply into the history, the Belgrano affair is a Whitehall classic in which the government of the day painted itself into a corner by visibly maintaining an official fiction about the circumstances of the Belgrano’s sinking even when it weas increasingly apparent that the official story was some way short of the truth.

In fact the truth of the Belgrano’s sinking was both straightforward and banal, the result of a battlefield decision by the commander on the spot who judged it to be a threat to British Forces wherever it was and whichever direction it was heading – had the government of the time given a straight answer to question about the Belgrano’ sinking when first asked by MPs after the war – “look, it was a battlefield decision and we couldn;t tell you the whole story at the time for reasons of national security” – then their would have been no ‘Belgrano Affair’, the one situation in which governments are permitted to ‘lie’ to MPs in the Commons is when the country is as where and where a truthful account of events may compromise the safety of British forces.

Instead, the government chose to engage in an unnecessary cover-up and having started down that road could not then change its story without losing face and facing complaints of a breach of ministerial duty.

Ponting was the civil servant detailed to draft a response to questions about the sinking of the Belgrano from Tam Dalyell who was persistant in his questions having scented a possible cover-up – even if he was wrong in assumptions about what was actually being hidden from parliament – and did so on the understanding that the answers to be given would be as truthful as interests of national security would permit in the circumstances.

What followed was a comedy of errors. At the last minute the then Defence Secretary, Michael Heseltine, did a U-turn on coming clean and batted away Dalyell’s questions with the usual ‘nothing more to add’ response. Ponting, concerned that information was being withheld that parliament had a right to see, leaked information to Dalyell, which Dalyell forwarded to the Tory Chair of the Defence Select Committee, expecting that his confidence would be respected, only to discover that the Chair has immediately reported the leak to the MOD.

The upshot of which was that Ponting was then arrested and charged with breaching the 1911 Official Secrets Act.

Ponting’s trial came down to two basic issues – the government argued that the interests of government and the interests of the State were synonymous, and argument that the trial judge visibly bought into, while Ponting countered with the argument that his actions were in the public interest.

The jury took Ponting’s view to heart and acquitted him – and it was a quick acquittal.

Today, much of this is of puerly academic interest except for what happened next. Having lost the case against Ponting because a jury or ordinary citizens took the interests of government and State are not alway synonymous – a view supported by, amongst others, Winston Churchill who was of the clear opinion that the Official Secret Act was solely to secure the interests of the State and should not be used to cover the collective arses of the government from self-inflicted embarassments – the government of the day introduced the 1989 Act, which is now being used to suppress press coverage of the memo.

And that is the real scandal here, not simply that the 1989 Act has enabled the supression of information that is clearly in the public interest but that the very Act being used is one which came about as a result of a defeat in court to which the government of the day responded by changing the rules to suit its own interest and at the expense of the interests of citizens.