Freedom of Information: Top secrets for public inspection

Introduced two years ago, the Freedom of Information Act has forced the British Government to give up its darkest secrets and present many of its most sensitive documents for public inspection. Robert Verhaik opens the files
Click to follow

Britain is not the same country it was two years ago. Following the introduction of new rights of access, with the Freedom of Information Act on 1 January 2005 the Government has been forced to give up its secrets, while Whitehall has had to offer up its most sensitive files for public inspection. What we have witnessed is a seeping release of documents, memos and classified papers that has shone a light into the darkest workings of our democracy, as well as revealing fascinating facts about the rich and famous along the way.

I was one of many journalists who took part in the stampede for stories that followed the introduction of the new regime two years ago next month. It was a moment of great anticipation. We had all seen how the governments of other countries had been opened up to public scrutiny through the use of right-to-know legislation. In America there had been startling revelations about President Kennedy's assassination, Watergate and the political scandal of Nicaragua. Now it was our turn, finally, to get to the truth about war with Iraq, the death of Princess Diana ... and Wham!'s historic tour of China.

STATUS: Catnapped?
SUBJECT: Humphrey
DATE: 13 Nov, 1997

The first conspiracy to be tackled using new powers was a political whodunnit: the mystifying case of Humphrey, the Downing Street cat. The one-year-old stray arrived at Number 10 in 1989, and by the time Labour came to power eight years later, it had already served under two Prime Ministers.

But not long after the Blairs crossed the threshold, rumours began circulating in the media about how Cherie didn't really like cats because she found them unhygienic.

Previous suggestions that Mrs Blair and Humphrey were not on the best of terms had triggered an "impromptu" photo-shoot to portray the two of them as very good friends. Then on 13 November 1997, the Number 10 press office quietly announced that Humphrey had been retired. But if Downing Street had hoped this would put an end to the stories, they must have been very disappointed. Soon the corridors and bars of Westminster were engulfed by dark conspiracy theories - about how Cherie had ordered Humphrey's exile, or worse, had had Humphrey bumped off.

"Humphreygate", as it was known, took the gloss off Labour's landslide victory, and the cat's sudden and convenient disappearance even became a metaphor for the political expedience employed by Alastair Campbell and his Number 10 masters. Yet no matter how hard they chased the story, Fleet Street's finest were unable to find out what had really happened. Downing Street and the media appeared to have reached a stand-off; no journalist could find the killer fact to run a full story and Campbell & Co were not prepared to put them out of their misery for fear of opening the floodgates to a wave of intrusive questioning.

But Labour's ability to hold on to the "secret" of the story of Humphrey the cat - and later, much more sensitive information such as the Attorney General's advice on the legality of war with Iraq - was already under threat. In fact, Labour had sewn the seeds of its own PR downfall when in opposition it promised to end the culture of Whitehall secrecy. And in 2000 the Government finally honoured its promise by enacting a Freedom of Information law that would give the public the right to see documents, memos, cabinet minutes and a host of other material relating to information held by 100,000 public bodies. The first flood of requests under the act were rather predictable and allowed Labour to respond with blanket rejections. The Attorney General's advice on the war with Iraq, for instance, was covered by any number of exemptions. A demand to see Peter Mandelson's bank accounts was easily brushed aside by citing data-protection laws. Tony Blair's conversations with George Bush about how to catch Osama Bin Laden could not be released because of issues of national security. And so the stonewalling went on.

But a question about a cat? What harm could that do? Alastair Campbell may still have been reluctant to make any release but, under pressure from the Lord Chancellor, he bowed to the wishes of his political masters. So, in 2005, the Humphrey files were opened. The dossier, an inch and a half thick, was testimony to Whitehall's pre-occupation with paperwork and filing on even the most trivial of matters. On the day of disclosure the media held its breath as the country's leading political hacks waded through the material, letter by letter and memo by memo. And when the white smoke finally rose above Westminster, it looked as if Cherie Blair was off the hook.

There was nothing in the 121 pages to say that the PM's wife had strangled the cat in a fit of rage. Nor was there any evidence to suggest that Alastair Campbell had thrown him into the Thames - though this was the story one tabloid had come very close to running. Instead the papers revealed that Humphrey really was the victim of nothing more sinister than enforced retirement. At nine years old, Humphrey, like a minister past his sell-by date, had been found no longer to be up to the job. In short, he was simply a mouser who could no longer catch mice.

STATUS: Kitchen hell?
SUBJECT: Gordon Ramsay
DATE: Mar-Sept, 2005

The conditions inside the kitchens of one Britain's most popular chefs might have remained a secret had The Independent's consumer affairs correspondent not used the Freedom of Information Act to ask to see health inspectors' reports. These showed that a visit last March to Gordon Ramsay, the great man's three-star Michelin restaurant in Chelsea, uncovered some rather embarrassing contraventions of the food safety laws.

Ramsay was ordered to "thoroughly clean" the freezer, mend broken kitchen tiles and stop storing cleaning materials next to food. The restaurant was also found by Kensington and Chelsea council to be breaking rules on electrical safety and did not have an accident book - although at no stage was there any threat to public health.

Worse was to come in September 2005, during an inspection by Westminster council of another of the chef's most high-profile ventures, Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's. Although standards were generally found to be high, the inspector - whose name is blanked from the document - discovered a washing-up sink placed so close to food preparation that there was a risk of "contamination". The chefs were seen to be wiping their hands on "dirty cloths". "More frequent hand-washing required," the inspector noted. Other problems included the storage of butane gas next to food, the stowing of wine in an electrical cupboard (the bottles were quickly removed) and the absence of soap from the ladies' staff lavatory. What it all added up to, of course, was Ramsay's very own kitchen nightmare.

STATUS: Mystery death?
SUBJECT: Winston Churchill
DATE: 4 July, 1943

One of the most bitterly contested conspiracy theories of the Second World War concerns the mysterious death of General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Polish war-time leader. Some historians believed that Winston Churchill had a controlling hand in the plane crash that killed Sikorski off the coast of Gibraltar on 4 July, 1943. Churchill's motive, it was alleged, was that he wanted to protect the Anglo/Russian pact by killing the man who continued to call for Stalin to be charged with war crimes.

In 1968, the theory resurfaced as the plot for Soldiers, a play scripted by the German writer Rolf Hochhuth, directed by Kenneth Tynan and supported by Laurence Olivier. Three years after Churchill's state funeral the play was intended as a piece of incendiary theatre - and it didn't disappoint. By the following year, Peter Carter-Ruck, one of the country's leading libel lawyers, had been instructed to begin defamation proceedings against the writer and producers of the play. He was acting for members of Churchill's family and the pilot of the plane, who had been blamed for the crash.

Previously classified documents, released this year, reveal that the defence team had enlisted the help of the now-notorious historian David Irving. More importantly, the documents show the concern at the heart of government about what else might come out in the legal case - lending credence to those who believed there might be more to the crash than the government maintained. A second set of documents provides further tantalising evidence of the name of one of the possible Polish accomplices to the alleged plot.

STATUS: Target?
SUBJECT: Bob Marley
DATE: 3 Dec, 1976

Shortly after the reggae artist made his international breakthrough he was the target of an assassination attempt. In December 1976, two days before "Smile Jamaica", a free concert organised by Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley in an attempt to ease tension between two warring political groups, Marley, his wife Rita and manager Don Taylor were wounded in an assault by unknown gunmen at Marley's home. Though Marley suffered only minor injuries, Rita was wounded in the head and Taylor took four bullets to the groin.

Under the new powers, papers released by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office shine more light on to the alleged political motives behind the shooting, which had long been hotly debated. A memo sent to London from the British embassy in Kingston speculated that the "purpose of the raid was presumably to deter Marley from giving his performance". The memo added: "The staging of the show was a typical example of the way in which the government has recently been using and abusing its powers in order to further [its] electoral prospects." This seems to give support to those who'd always believed the opposition party, the JLP, to be involved.

At the time, however, despite growing evidence of a political dimension to the attack, the Foreign Office hedged its bets: "On the other hand it seems barely credible that the JLP leadership could have sanctioned such an attack which was bound to bring discredit upon the JLP." Whatever the truth, the concert proceeded on 5 December, and an injured Marley performed as scheduled.

STATUS:War criminal?
SUBJECT:Robert Maxwell
DATE: 5 Nov, 1991

The story of Robert Maxwell's rise to public prominence is the story of an extraordinary journey that took him from humble origins in Czechoslovakia to the heart of the British Establishment, where he became the trusted confidant of governments.

Jan Ludvick Hoch - as his parents named him - arrived in London at the start of the Second World War, a refugee escaping the tyranny of the Nazi occupation of continental Europe. In 1942 he enlisted in the British Army and fought bravely - as he told it - in Germany, where he was decorated for gallantry in action.

After demobilisation he started a career in publishing. Through a series of aggressive takeovers he grew a media business that included Mirror Group Newspapers, which by the end of the 1980s was one of the biggest in Fleet Street. But Maxwell's business empire was built on debt and deception. He had "borrowed" millions of employees' money from company pension funds to prop up his increasingly precarious financial position. Then in 1991, when his finances were collapsing, he disappeared while sailing in the Atlantic.

The last words of Robert Maxwell were communicated at 4.45am on 5 November, 1991. He contacted the bridge of his luxury yacht to complain about the temperature of his cabin, demanding, in his customary gruff tone, that the crew turn up the air conditioning. Twelve hours later, a Spanish fisherman spotted his naked body floating in the ocean, 15 miles from his boat. And in the days that followed his death, it emerged that there was plenty to trouble the flamboyant media baron.

In January 2006, one year after the Freedom of Information Act had come into force, I decided to use the new powers to try to once again open up the case.

Maxwell was 68, in poor health, weighing 22 stone, with a weak heart and lungs, and facing a financial crisis. Even in 2006, these were the only salient facts about Maxwell's condition of which we could be certain. But with the arrival of the Freedom of Information Act, it was possible to dig deeper. My first suspicion was that there must be something more to Maxwell's financial troubles.

The scale of his debt and the whiff of corruption hanging over the missing millions from his pension schemes led me to surmise that perhaps the police were already on to him. My first inquiries with the Metropolitan Police, who had been in charge of the investigation after his death, simply turned up the official report which made it clear that the authorities were only properly alerted to the pension scandal after his death.

I decided to make a request under the FOI Act, hoping to uncover files that might throw some light on other police investigations into his financial dealings. Four weeks later, I was contacted again by an officer and on 8 March this year, an email simply entitled "Maxwell" dropped into my inbox.

Robert Maxwell had indeed had a good war. Shortly after his arrival in Britain in 1942, the Czech refugee had enlisted as a private in the British Army. Three years later he had risen through the ranks, and led his platoon from the Normandy beaches into the heart of Germany.

All this concurred with the conveniently abridged version of his service history that Cap'n Bob liked to tell people whenever his war record came up in conversation. But there was much more to be revealed about his activities in the final months of the Second World War.

In March 1945, he received the terrible news that his mother and sister had been executed as "hostages" by the Nazis in occupied Czechoslovakia. In a note to his future wife, Betty, he wrote : "As you can well imagine, I am not taking any prisoners, and, whatever home my men occupy, before I leave I order it to be destroyed." A month later, his platoon was involved in mopping up resistance from the German defenders. On 2 April, Maxwell ordered his men to fire mortars at a German village. He wrote to Betty: "A few minutes later, I saw them running out of the houses and we started firing at each other. I got two of them, and I ordered the mortars to shell the village for a few minutes."

It proved to be an effective tactic that led to the surrender of the remaining Germans - and inspired Maxwell to try it again as he moved towards a nearby town. "So I sent one of the Germans to fetch the mayor of the town," he wrote. "I told him that he had to go to tell the Germans to surrender ... otherwise the town will be destroyed. One hour later, he came back saying that the soldiers will surrender and the white flag was put up, so we marched off, but as soon as we marched off a German tank opened fire on us. Luckily he missed so I shot the mayor and withdrew."

It was this act of brutality, disclosed by Maxwell himself in his authorised biography, that I now learned had been the subject of a war crimes investigation. The Met file showed that two officers from the newly created war crimes unit had been investigating the case for several months. They had begun tracing members of Maxwell's platoon and had established the name of the German town where he had ordered the bombardment. This was shocking. But there was even more to the war crimes investigation than first met the eye.

The date of the investigation was April 1990, seven months before Maxwell's body was found floating in the Atlantic. The prospect of being put on trial for the cold-blooded murder of a civilian and the ignominy of being the first Briton to be prosecuted for war crimes under newly enacted legislation must have weighed heavily on his mind.

Maxwell may have thought about fighting the case and clearing his name. But there was little he could do to dispute the facts. Was this how he was to be remembered? Convicted of war crimes in front of an Old Bailey jury before being bundled off to prison? He knew that he was ill and would not last long in prison. Could it be that in a depression, Maxwell had left his sweltering cabin, walked slowly towards the aft of the yacht and eased himself into the cooling waters of the Atlantic?f

STATUS: Fatal fact?
SUBJECT: Princess Diana
DATE: 31 Aug, 1997

What of the most sensational of all British conspiracy theories - the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a Paris road tunnel?

The facts are now well known. On 31 August 1997, Diana was killed in a car crash in the French capital, along with her lover Dodi Al-Fayed, and their driver Henri Paul. The vehicle was being pursued by paparazzi photographers. As it raced at high speed through Paris, with many of the motorbikes dropping behind, the Mercedes entered the Pont de l'Alma tunnel under the River Seine, a notorious accident black spot.

It was here that the driver is believed to have lost control of the vehicle, causing it to glance off the right wall of the tunnel and then smash into the reinforced-concrete 13th pillar of the underpass. Witnesses described the sound of the crash as like a small explosion.

Wide disparities in witness statements and some of the forensic evidence have helped to fuel the Diana conspiracy industry and ensured that every newly uncovered facet of Diana's life and death is viewed as a contributory part to a central order of events that supports one sinister theory or another.

The arrival of the Freedom of Information Act has triggered the disclosure of important documents that have revived speculation about the events leading up to the accident in the Paris tunnel. A Government minute compiled in the aftermath of the accident and anonymously addressed to Tony Blair states that Diana and Dodi got into the Mercedes car as part of a ploy to avoid the paparazzi. A memo to Mr Blair on the day of Diana's death told how when the couple arrived at the Ritz hotel in Paris they were " immediately subject to media attention". When they left on the night of the accident the photographers were waiting. "They tried to leave quickly but the first hire car failed to start," says the memo.

But then a second file, disclosed in compliance with another FOI request, gave a quite different explanation. The file sent by Sir Michael Jay, the British ambassador in Paris, on 23 September to the Foreign Office said the switch to another car had been "a last minute change of plan aimed at diverting waiting paparazzi". There was no mention of a first car failing to start. Curiouser and curiouser?

The flurry of papers sent from Paris following Diana's death also reveal the hurried diplomatic discussions as arrangements for removing the body and beginning the investigation into her death got underway. Sir Michael noted how he was told that the French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, wanted to return to Paris to pay his last respects to the princess. "I explained that paying last respects was not a strong British or Anglican tradition," he wrote.

Back in Britain, so the papers reveal, the Government was at pains to avoid controversy as the country went into mourning. A letter from the cabinet secretary Robin Butler to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister said: "The Prime Minister has asked that in the period immediately following the tragic death government ministers should avoid engaging in activities which could result in political controversy." What activities the PM had in mind, however, is not immediately clear.

STATUS: Alien visit?
DATE: July, 1977

The National Archives Office in Kew, formerly known as the Public Records Office, holds the largest database of secrets in the world. Millions of documents in electronic and hard copy have been painstakingly filed under classified headings ranging from "restricted viewing" to "top secret".

For an investigative journalist there can be no more exciting a phrase than the words that flashed across the top of my documents: "Classified - not for release until 2010". The black ink stamp of secrecy meant that mine was the first unrestricted eye to see these documents for 30 years.

Since the 1950s, when the first reports of UFOs reached this country from America, the men from the ministry had maintained a contemptuous silence about the possibility of alien visitors. So it is still surprising to me, even today, that there exists at the heart of the Ministry of Defence, working in a committee room supported by secretarial staff, a special unit whose sole purpose is to investigate and collate reports of UFOs. These papers are Britain's very own X-Files.

Many of the documents contained fanciful reports from old ladies, children or UFO enthusiasts - and, on the whole, they do not make very convincing reading. But after a great deal of digging I finally came across a slightly thicker file, with much more MoD correspondence than any of the others. This time the observers were not children, confused old ladies or UFO nuts but an RAF pilot and two NCOs based at RAF Boulmer in Northumberland.

In July 1977, Flt Lt A M Wood reported "bright objects hanging over the sea", the closest of which was "luminous, round and four to five times larger than a Whirlwind helicopter".

The RAF personnel estimated that UFOs were three miles out to sea at a height of about 5,000ft. The officer's central report is carefully backed-up by the NCOs. With great attention to detail, he writes: "The objects separated. Then one went west of the other, as it manoeuvered it changed shape to become body-shaped with projections like arms and legs."

All three men who were positioned at the picket post at the RAF station were able to observe the strange objects for an hour and 40 minutes. At the same time a radar station detected the objects in exactly the same position as the men had observed them.

The accompanying MoD report describes Flt Lt Wood as "reliable and sober ". It adds: "Two contacts were noted on radar, both T84 and T85, at RAF Boulmer. They were also seen on the Staxton Wold radar picture which is relayed to West Drayton ... On seeing the objects on radar the duty controller checked with the SRO at RAF West Drayton as to whether he could see the objects on radar supplied from RAF Staxton Wold." This account was deemed so sensitive to the national interest that the MoD had delayed its release for an extra three years. It was the most credible evidence to emerge from Britain of extraterrestrial life visiting our world. Could this really have been Britain's very own Roswell experience?

STATUS: China crisis?
DATE: April, 1985

Wham! made pop history in 1985 when they became the first Western group to tour China. It was an event that was closely watched by British diplomats stationed in Beijing. The embassy's description of the 15,000 sell-out concert characterised it as an extraordinary culture clash with the audience mystified by the dancing and singing performances of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley.

The embassy's unnamed first secretary wrote: "Neither the Chinese nor Wham! knew quite how to behave faced with something completely beyond their experience."

After the concert, the diplomat wondered if the authorities would allow more. "There is no reason to suppose that the Chinese have been discouraged by their experience ... Financially they must have done very well. There was considerable interest by the younger Chinese in the visit. There was a lively black market in tickets for the concert, although this was no doubt encouraged by Wham!'s generosity in giving a free copy of their latest tape away with each ticket."

STATUS:More murders?
SUBJECT:The Yorkshire Ripper
DATE: 1969-1975

A secret Home Office report from 1981, released in June of this year, revealed that Peter Sutcliffe, the serial killer known as the Yorkshire Ripper, probably committed "many" more attacks on women than the 13 murders and seven attempted murders for which he was finally jailed.

The report by Sir Lawrence Byford noted: "There is a curious and unexplained lull in Sutcliffe's criminal activities [between 1969, when he twice came to the attention of police over incidents involving prostitutes, and 1975, the date of the first murder for which he was convicted] and there is the possibility that he carried out other attacks on prostitutes and unaccompanied women during that period ... We feel it is highly improbable that the crimes in respect of which Sutcliffe has been charged and convicted are the only ones attributable to him."

At the time police identified at least six more attacks that matched Sutcliffe's modus operandi or his description. They tried to question the killer, now in Broadmoor, but he refused to help. Other documents show that Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister at the time, was so angry at the failure to catch the killer that there was talk of sending Scotland Yard to take over from the West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester forces.

STATUS: Royal romance?
SUBJECT: Princess Margaret
DATE: The 1950s

The keepers of the secrets of Buckingham Palace and Clarence House have been unable to prevent the publication of legal advice concerning a proposed marriage between Princess Margaret and her life-long love, the dashing Battle of Britain hero Group Captain Peter Townsend.

Papers finally revealed under the Freedom of Information Act show that although the Princess would have been removed from the line of succession, she could have kept her royal title if she had married the divorcé Townsend - a question that had provoked much argument over many years between constitutional experts. In a letter prepared for transmission to senior Commonwealth prime ministers, the British PM Anthony Eden (himself remarried after a divorce) said that even though the Queen would not give formal permission for the marriage because of Townsend's divorce, "Her Majesty would not want to stand in the way of her sister's happiness".

There was even an opinion from the Lord Chancellor that the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, under which the rights of the Royal family to marry are restricted, did not apply to Margaret.