'Spycatcher' judge condemns British official secrecy

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The Independent Online
The injustice of British official secrecy was condemned by Justice Michael Kirby, the Australian judge who heard the Government appeal against publication of Peter Wright's Spycatcher memoirs in 1986-1987.

He told a London conference organised by the Campaign for Freedom of Information that Whitehall's opposition to the principle of open government was ridiculous when it was possible to secure access to files in Moscow that were closed in London.

Judge Kirby said that the international contrast not only exposed the British attitude as outdated and paternalistic, it also highlighted the injustice of a society that prevented its own citizens from having access to information held by politicians or officials who were elected or employed to represent or serve them in the first place.

'Ask not what advantage your country derives from your gaining access to information necessary for your political decisions to be informed. Ask rather by what right your country may deny you such access? And who is it, on behalf of your country, who is doing so?'

With the Commons Second Reading debate on Mark Fisher's backbench Right to Know Bill set down for 19 February, yesterday's conference received evidence of the impact of similar legislation in both Australia and Canada.

Countering the 'dire prognostications' that had preceded the Australian freedom of information legislation, Judge Kirby said: 'The costs have been manageable. Civilisation as we know it has survived.

'We are, marginally, a more open society. Our administrators are marginally more accountable. Their decisions have probably become a little better.'

But there was a more important case for openness, he said. 'It is an end to one of the last vestiges of the tyranny of unaccountable rulers.

'It is a regime in tune with the realities of our world and of the global technology of information. More fundamentally, it is harmonious with the basic ideas of liberty and human rights which remain among the greatest gifts which the English have given and defended.'

John Grace, the official Canadian information ombudsman, told the conference that England had given Canada a large and rich legacy in terms of democracy, public service and law. If they were to give something back, it would be the advice that freedom of information would enhance, not diminish, public service; and that, in terms of cost, it was a bargain.

'Embarking on a freedom of information campaign is, for many, akin to stepping off a precipice into the darkness,' he said. 'You'll find, I can assure you, that it's no more than a six-inch drop. Bureaucrats' and politicians' lives will change only on the margin. They certainly won't die from the impact.'

Mr Grace said it took confidence, competence, courage and a commitment to democracy to ensure the success of open government. Real openness, he said, required the support of some heroes. But he warned: 'Secrecy is like a mob - in its fold, even the most decent of humans can do appalling things. It is a lesson we all ignore at our peril.'