Philip Hensher: Too much free speech can be damaging

It is strange that Sir Christopher sees nothing peculiar about publishing these valet-like insights
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Watching government ministers in action in Washington, Sir Christopher takes plenty of opportunities to exercise his sorrow, rather than his anger. Labour fundraiser and Blair's special envoy to the Middle East Lord Levy's self-esteem demands that he be arranged meetings with people way out of his league, and threatens to run to Tony when thwarted "for reasons of protocol". Jack Straw, "more to be liked than admired," found himself "mystifyingly tongue-tied" in the presence of Janet Reno. When Henry McLeish, the First Minister of Scotland, was incomprehensibly granted an audience with the President himself, he "twitched and stuttered in the Oval Office."

Best of all is an assault on John Prescott. "I really liked Prescott," Sir Christopher promises, before putting the knife in. Prescott couldn't return the compliment - I wonder why - and "arrived at the embassy ... like a mastiff with his hackles up". Although Meyer "thought he had a sharp political brain", he was amused to see Prescott, in a meeting with a senator, getting "into a terrible tangle ... [talking] about war in the 'Balklands' and 'Kovosa'." Very Foreign Office, that; telling the reader how much you esteem your victim before embarking on a paragraph of concentrated ridicule.

What is really startling about these entertaining ventures into high politics and low abuse is how recent the events recounted are. Sir Christopher must have started writing the book almost as soon as he left his post in February 2003, and this is an increasing tendency among ministers and important officials. We have already had the memoirs of Lance Price, the former spin doctor.

And that's not to mention the memoirs of ministers, which have been coming out for some time now, nor a positive flood of biographies from the very beginning of the administration. In theory, the government can put a stop to the memoirs of officials, or require changes. Former MI5 boss Stella Rimington's memoirs had to be altered in line with official demands. The memoirs of Sir Jeremy Greenstock, former ambassador to the UN, have been suppressed for the time being, it is said on the personal authority of Jack Straw, and are supposedly unlikely to be published until a new foreign secretary comes along.

Such suppression can only really happen if the memoirs seem to commit some breach of security. The sort of gossip and mockery conveyed in these current memoirs by insiders is something the government seems to have decided it will just put up with. It probably guesses that the obloquy which would follow the suppression of mere tittle-tattle would be much worse than the revelation that some ambassador thought it terribly funny that John Prescott had an awful chip on his shoulder. Perhaps that's right.

All the same, it is strange that Sir Christopher, who as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission now occupies a post where he must be privy to a great number of confidential discussions with the eminent, sees nothing peculiar or personally damaging about publishing these valet-like insights. Anyone he now has to deal with will, surely, be very careful indeed about how they present themselves to him, and what exactly they say.

Writing about the Queen and the Royal Family at the end of the 1980s, the historian Ben Pimlott said, very truly, that in due course they would be far more damaged by books in hard covers than by any number of tabloid revelations. And that seems to be happening now to the Blair government. The score-settling memoirs of ministers and ex-civil servants, the biographies of serving ministers, such as Stephen Pollard's of David Blunkett, are not just commentaries on enclosed events. Like the observer in chaos theory, they alter the events they describe by the act of observation itself.

This increasingly rapid turnover of memoirs can't really be good for the running of affairs. I don't underestimate the entertainment value of Sir Christopher's memoirs. And in the post-modern world we are all supposed to live in, no event is really complete until it has been turned into a narrative with commentary. But would it really be so terrible if a convention were to arise that participants in these events must observe a given delay before publishing their accounts?

Of course, the government doesn't really want to get involved in considering individual cases, and, in unseemly ways, objecting when ex-ambassadors describe ministers as stuttering halfwits. Indeed, the world is a much better place for the ability of ambassadors to talk, subsequently, in those terms. It is just that if everyone starts to think that those views may be expressed while some of the subjects are still in office, that will start to have a very damaging effect on relations in public life.

No harm to free speech would be done if it were understood that ministers and civil servants should not publish their memoirs in permanent form during the life of the administration, or, within, say, five years of their authors leaving office. After all, this breaks one of nanny's most civilised rules; never be rude about people who can't answer back on equal terms.

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