Leading Article: Secrecy should have no part in a modern democracy

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The Independent Culture
INFORMATION - THE Government's attitude towards it, our right to access it - is the essence of several of the most important stories in the news this week; a week that also saw the Freedom of Information Act (which the Labour Party committed itself to completely when in opposition) apparently drop off the legislative agenda entirely after only a year in power. Admittedly newspapers tend to be more concerned about this issue than, say, hospitals do. But this milestone is important because it is one that every British Government in recent years has passed. A Freedom of Information Act was in the offing in 1974, as was reform of the Official Secrets Act in 1979. Both failed. It is to the Labour Party's shame that this time their Act did not make it through Parliament in the double-quick time promised before the election. Somewhat inevitably the desire of our new Government to pass such measures was outstripped by a creeping sense of comfort with the status quo.

The first information story is David Shayler, that least James Bond-ian recruit to Her Majesty's secret service. Whether he is telling the truth about the MI6 plot to kill Colonel Gadaffi or whether it is a part of a wider plan to boost his own profile in order to eventually sell books (or both), it is clear that the Government has shot itself in the foot by trying to keep him quiet. Granted: there is a deep level of public fascination, reflected in the media, with the cloak-and-dagger stuff.

In some senses it is a peculiarly British fetish, drawing on our tendency to keep quiet unless specifically told not to and a history of believing ourselves to be in possession of secrets worth keeping. But these days it is also fuelled by The X-Files on television, disenchantment with elected national government in the context of increasing global multilateralism and the conspiracy theorist in all of us. For all these reasons, David "licensed to log on" Shayler would have made the news anyway.

But by preventing this failed journalist and civil servant from publishing his allegations, the Government gave them a credibility they would not otherwise have had, and also drew attention to them. Ironically too, in this particular case, the Official Secrets Act which makes his behaviour an offence is the same thing that has hamstrung attempts to extradite him from France. Because there is no equivalent all-encompassing gagging order for ex-employees of the French Government, his extradition will probably take months, if it happens at all.

The second information-related story is the report, or rather two reports, being published about the role of spin doctors in the Government. Apparently Labour members of a Government committee charged with writing about Alastair Campbell have been nobbled by, um, Alastair Campbell, prompting the Liberal Democrats and Conservative committee members to produce their own minority report.

This specific approach to information is particularly instructive. For what we have here are the men - Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell - whose understanding of the importance of maintaining control of their party and its media coverage was born during the Labour Party's chaotic 1980s. The lesson was learned the hard way. But now they are in power they appear not to have expanded their new-found media skills beyond the confines of the Labour Party and outwards to the Government and, most important, the electorate. Instead they are getting tripped up by the very issue of freedom of information.

Pagers with little red roses on them and a rootin' tootin' information system called Excalibur are apparently vital for the smooth running of the people's Labour Party. But whatever you do, don't let the same people know what the backbenchers think about the way the frontbenchers and their henchmen dish out information. Confused? They are.