1980s >> 1988 >> no-1008-august-1988

Official Secrets

The present Official Secrets Act. with its notorious “catch-all” Section 2, went through all its parliamentary stages in 1911 in just 30 minutes. As a result section 2 has been variously described as “a mess”, “a blunderbuss” and now. in the present White Paper on secrecy laws, as “unsatisfactory” and “in need of reform”. The proposed new legislation is likely to be much more carefully drafted and. as a consequence, potentially more of a threat to those who want to find out what the state is up to.

As the Official Secrets Act (amended in 1920) stands, it is a criminal offence to disclose or receive any official information without prior authorisation. The White Paper proposes to legislate more precisely on which kinds of information cannot be disclosed without being subject to criminal sanction. Broadly speaking those areas are defence, security and intelligence; international relations; information obtained in confidence from other governments or international organisations; information useful to criminals; and information relating to telephone tapping and the interception of mail and other communications.

Despite this narrowing down of the categories of information to be covered by the new law, no-one should be under any illusion that this will be a “freedom of information” measure. Leaks of other “less serious” material will be dealt with by means of internal civil service disciplinary measures. In other words civil servants who leak information are likely to be quietly sacked without even having the chance to defend their actions in public. Furthermore, disclosure of certain kinds of information will be subject to an absolute ban — significantly some of those areas which have caused the government embarrassment in recent years. These are telephone tapping (details of which were revealed by former MI5 officer. Cathy Massiter) and the activities of GCHQ; disclosure of any information by serving or former members of the security and intelligence services (such as Peter Wright, author of Spycatcher); and confidential information from foreign governments.

It is also worth remembering that, despite the concentration on the Official Secrets Act, there exist approximately 100 other pieces of legislation that prevent certain categories of information from being disclosed. These range from price-sensitive material to information relating to the nuclear industry and also include information on health and safety matters.

What quickly becomes apparent from a close look at the White Paper is that very little (if any) information not disclosed today is likely to be available as a result of the proposed new legislation. So, far from being the “liberalising” measure that Douglas Hurd, the Home Secretary, has claimed it to be, by tightening up the existing law the current proposals will ensure that successful prosecutions for unauthorised disclosures can be bought more easily. And after the embarrassment caused by Clive Ponting‘s acquittal and the interminable fiasco over Spycatcher, that is precisely what the government wants to achieve.

For, in addition to the more precise specification of what kinds of information cannot be disclosed, the legislation will seek to outlaw the defence that disclosure is “in the public interest” — successfully used by Ponting in 1985. In other words, no civil servant will, in the future, be able to speak out about official negligence, malpractice or dishonesty without risking imprisonment.

The ending of the “public interest” defence and the abolition of the “prior publication” clause (that is. that a piece of information is already in the public domain) will particularly affect newspapers. They will no longer be able to make such disclosures as those by The Observer in 1984 that MI5 was secretly black-listing certain BBC employees who were deemed subversive, nor would it be able to publish details about the recent Stalker case, on the grounds that it was “in the public interest” to do so.

Furthermore there are other new laws in the pipeline which will require senior civil servants and employees of the security services to sign contracts of employment obliging them to maintain a life-long silence about their activities. Any breach of contract would lead to loss of pension rights and the possibility that they would be sued for damages by the government.

At the same time as official information is becoming more difficult for “us” to obtain, information about individuals’ private lives is becoming easier for “them” to get their hands on. partly due to the potential created by new information technology. Currently Home Office. DHSS, Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise computers are being linked together to form the “government data network”, which will allow information to be exchanged between government departments’ own data banks. This will allow a huge amount of information on all of us to be networked together, enabling the possible construction of comprehensive “personal profiles”. Once this happens it is unlikely to be very long before a national system of identity cards is introduced.

Why is this issue of information and access to it of importance to the working class? Increasingly we are subject to a diet of information that is distorted, manipulated and censored. That affects not only what we know about the world but also how we view and understand it. For example, we are frequently told that “we” are all better off now, and yet statistics about the distribution of wealth in this country are no longer available and so we have no means of assessing such statements. Information presented to us as “news” is frequently taken directly from government press releases or “leaked” officially. In other words we are hearing the news that the government wants us to hear.

Information and control over it are about power. Attempts to deprive us of information while at the same time building up data banks on our private lives, constitute a consolidation of class power.

Janie Percy-Smith