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Addicted to Secrecy, Lies and Distortion

This article first appeared in the Observer supplement on Censorship in April 1994

If secrecy is the British disease, is it curable? Over recent decades many classic secrecy battles have been fought – yet the same issues remain sources of conflict.

In 1957 fire broke out at the Windscale nuclear reactor in Cumbria causing what at the time was the world’s worst nuclear accident. Milk sales from more than 200 square miles around the plant were banned and it is now estimated that, on the most pessimistic assumptions, as many as 100 fatal cancers and a similar number of non fatal cases may eventually result.

An immediate official inquiry was held – but its report was to remain secret for three decades. Publicly, prime minister Harold Macmillan said disclosure would damage national security. Privately the Ministry of Defence acknowledged that there was “no security objection” to publication. But Macmillan wanted the facts concealed from the Americans, fearing that if they learnt of Britain’s nuclear incompetence they would block future collaboration. The truth about the fire was only revealed in 1988, when the report was finally made public under the ’30 year rule’.

Windscale, today known as Sellafield, is now home to the THORP nuclear reprocessing plant. What are the chances of a new accident? The answer is another secret. The Health and Safety Executive refuses to release the risk assessment. The public supposedly has a right to environmental information under new regulations. But the HSE claims that it deals only with “safety” not “the environment”, and shrugs off the duty to disclose.

Take another classic secrecy struggle, thalidomide. Thousands of children were born with deformities after the inadequately tested sedative was given to pregnant women. Yet in 1972 the Attorney General won an injunction prohibiting the Sunday Times from publishing an article critical of the meagre compensation offered by the manufacturer. The gag was upheld by the House of Lords which ruled that the article would prejudice any legal proceedings. The paper appealed to the European Human Rights Court which, in 1979, ruled that the injunction violated the European Convention on Human Rights.

The scandal led to new legislation to control drug safety. But instead of protecting the public’s right to know, the Medicines Act guarantees the drug industry’s right to secrecy. It makes it a offence, punishable by two years in jail, for an official to reveal a company’s safety test results.

Does this outrageous restriction bother the government? Not in the least. Last year the Department of Health joined forces with the drug industry to kill a private member’s bill to open the safety data to scrutiny. In a memorable phrase, health minister Tom Sackville warned MPs not to “err too much on the fashionable side of openness”.

Nuclear weapons and secrecy have always gone together. But a watershed was reached in January 1980 when the public learnt that successive governments had concealed expenditure of £1,000 million on an upgrade to the Polaris missile system. The Chevaline project had been developed secretly during the Heath, Wilson and Callaghan administrations. The major expenditure was authorised by a small group of Labour ministers in 1974, and not even revealed to the Cabinet until later. When Conservative Defence Secretary Francis Pym subsequently disclosed the true cost his revelation was denounced by a former Labour minister as “one of the most outrageous, disgusting, most damaging examples of breaking the continuity of nuclear decision-making there has ever been”.

Safeguards were subsequently introduced to allow select committees to monitor the costs of such projects privately. Yet problems continue. In June 1993 the Commons Defence Committee attacked the secrecy surrounding Trident, the successor to the Polaris-Chevaline missile. It complained that “for reasons which we are unable to understand” the Ministry of Defence refused to publish the cost of testing British warheads in Nevada. The MOD was also unwilling to reveal whether British Trident missiles had the same safety features as American Tridents – though the Americans were perfectly open on the subject.

An unexpected freedom of information campaigner provides further insight into government’s anti-openness bias. In 1959 a newly elected MP, Margaret Thatcher, introduced a bill to make local councils open their meetings to the public. This embarrassed the Conservative government, which had promised more openness in its manifesto – but hadn’t intended to do much.

The 30-year rule papers show that Mrs Thatcher wanted the circumstances in which the press could be excluded from meetings tightly defined. The government insisted on a broad discretion to close meetings “in the public interest” – a formula Mrs Thatcher regarded as useless.

Officials told her it wasn’t possible to be more precise, yet privately recognised it could be done. One recorded: “I repeated the warning given by the Minister…about the difficulty of defining the nature of the public interest which warrants exclusion of the press… [the parliamentary draftsman] indicated afterwards that there would be no great technical difficulty in redrafting [the relevant clause] either strengthening it or not according to our instruction”.

The government rejected efforts to widen the bill and to make it properly enforceable. The future prime minister was told that if she stuck to such demands, her bill would be defeated. An unhappy Mrs Thatcher dropped them so reluctantly that officials feared she would later renege. Finally, the ministry’s top official, Dame Evelyn Sharp, confronted her with the unpleasant truth: “I said the Bill would have to be one through which an ill-disposed local authority could drive a coach and horses” she minuted.

Mrs Thatcher’s flawed bill later became law. It has since been replaced by somewhat better legislation, but the “coach and horses” principle still remains.

Then there is the Official Secrets Act. Governments of all persuasions have abused it. In 1970, Jonathan Aitken – then a journalist and Conservative candidate, was prosecuted for embarrassing the Labour government with an article, based on a leaked document, suggesting that ministers had misled Parliament about arms sales to Nigeria. The case was remarkably similar to the 1984 prosecution of Clive Ponting, who leaked documents showing that Conservative ministers had misled the Commons about the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands war. Both cases resulted in acquittals. However Sarah Tisdall, a junior civil servant, was jailed after leaking details of arrangements for handling publicity over the arrival of cruise missiles at Greenham Common.

In 1989, the notorious section two was replaced by a new, more limited Act. But the government fiercely resisted cross-party efforts to insert a public interest defence, to permit defendants to argue that exposing wrongdoing might be justified. The 1989 Act is particularly unyielding over security information. No-one who works for or closely with the security services can disclose any information without authority – however trivial, well known, or long after the event. When the government argued for this during the Spycatcher case, the judge Mr – now Lord – Justice Scott remarked that such an absolute ban could not be achieved “this side of the Iron Curtain”. He was wrong: section 1 of the Official Secrets Act 1989 did it.

Ironically, fear of this “iron curtain” law may have played a part in the arms to Iraq fiasco, the subject of the Lord Justice Scott’s inquiry. Why did no-one at the time speak out about the government’s complicity in the alleged offence that nearly sent the Matrix Churchill defendants to jail? Part of the answer could be that any whistleblower faced certain conviction under section 1 of the new Act.

When will we have the right to know? Last year the government blocked Mark Fisher MP’s freedom of information (FOI) bill. A new, non-statutory, Code of Practice on Official Information will come into force on 4 April 1994. The Code will lead to some more openness. But unlike overseas FOI laws it promises only “information” not access to actual documents. So ministers will find it easy to select the facts that support their case, and suppress the rest. Complaints about non-disclosure can be made, via an MP, to the Parliamentary Ombudsman, a step forward. But the Ombudsman’s findings are not binding. If real embarrassment threatens, the government will, as ever, still be able to indulge its addiction to secrecy.

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