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Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Profumo evidence - now you see it, now you don’t

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It’s a British first! While it may have been commonplace in the days of Glavlit, the dreaded Soviet censorship organ of the Stalin era, the UK Government may be the only one in modern times to make secret what had previously been public. Labour’s Lord Dubs discovered this when he asked for the release of the transcripts of the 1963 trial of Stephen Ward – the osteopath who introduced Christine Keeler and her lover, the married War Minister John Profumo, and was convicted on what a historian of the period has called the “tainted evidence” of police and others.

As official cover-ups go, this breaks impressive new ground, since the trial – followed by Ward’s death by overdose – was public and widely reported at the time.

But, Tory minister Lord Ahmad explained to incredulous peers, the (partial) surviving records of the trial “contain sensitive information about people who are still alive”. You don’t have to be a wild conspiracy theorist to guess that these “people” were fairly prominent at the time. Instead, he helpfully suggested, those interested in the trial and the Profumo affair, which helped to seal the fate of Harold Macmillan’s government, could run along to “my noble friend” Lord (Andrew) Lloyd Webber’s musical Stephen Ward which “has also been recommended as being well worth going to see”.

The plug was generous. but less than satisfactory. Lloyd Webber himself joined in  vain appeals last year for the evidence in the subsequent – and equally suspect – inquiry on the affair by Lord Denning to be released some time before the unspecified due date, widely expected to fall in two or three millennia hence.

Dubs got nowhere despite pointing out that Ward’s conviction is “probably one of the most significant miscarriages of justice in modern British history”. In this he echoed the historian Richard Davenport-Hines, who said Ward was “hounded to death by the establishment”.

The Lib Dem Lord Thomas queried the decision, given that the trial “was fully reported in lascivious detail by The Times at the time”. He asked if the transcript had been “suppressed” on the orders not of the trial judge but Lord Parker, the then Lord Chief Justice. Lord Ahmad didn’t answer that. Instead, he explained there was “guidance” from the Information Commissioner’s Office that the disclosure of “personal data” would breach “data protection principles, even after that has been disclosed in an open court”.

Confronted with that surreal proposition, Labour’s Lord Grenfell resorted to a conscious echo of the celebrated remark during the Ward trial by the other femme fatale of the episode, Mandy Rice-Davies, when told that Viscount William Astor denied having met her, let alone had an affair. “The Noble Lord would say that, wouldn’t he?”

Lord Ahmad, possibly realising the absurdity of the position he was defending, plucked his reply from House of Cards: “You might think that. I couldn’t possibly comment".