We all have a right to see our files - if they still exist

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The Independent Online

As The Independent reports today, the security services may now be forced to open up some of their secret files for public scrutiny. The Data Protection Commissioner has ordered MI5 and MI6 finally to learn that spying is not just about secrecy; it is also about responsibility. In a country that claims to be a democracy, people have a right to know what lies are in their files.

As The Independent reports today, the security services may now be forced to open up some of their secret files for public scrutiny. The Data Protection Commissioner has ordered MI5 and MI6 finally to learn that spying is not just about secrecy; it is also about responsibility. In a country that claims to be a democracy, people have a right to know what lies are in their files.

Given that, in the minds of the the British intelligence services, everything is Top Secret unless it has specifically been cleared (in which case it is merely Confidential), the chances that this will lead to true openness do not look high. MI5 and MI6 will perhaps not dare to follow the example set by secret police agencies like the Stasi in Germany after the fall of the Wall, where the new openness merely meant that the document shredders started working overtime (many East German shredders seized up completely, because of overheating).

But one would have to be profoundly naive not to accept that the security services are likely to fight each attempt at revelation with legal weasel-wordery

The failed attempts to muzzle newspapers reporting the David Shayler case remind us that glasnost is not the intelligence services' strong suit. If the legal official attempts at blocking publication of personal files fail, we can expect to see (or, to be exact, not see) preventive weeding of files in the months to come. Personal file? What personal file?

Still, this prospective vanishing act may be a consoling cop-out for what could otherwise be the most humiliating blow for any who believe that MI5 has kept a file on them for all these years. For many who reckoned themselves to be prominent on the left in the Thatcher years, it was an absolute article of faith that a damaging Big Brother file lurked somewhere in the bowels of an unmarked building in central London. Those who were known to have such files gained enormously in stature.

What could be more flattering than to be regarded, in the eyes of Margaret Thatcher, as an enemy of the state? And what could be more humiliating than to discover that no such file ever existed? It would be a hideously brutal blow to such people's self-esteem. We should be grateful, then, that the security services will probably refuse most requests or destroy much of the material they have gathered. And everyone can live complacently ever after. "My file? Oh, they destroyed it. Too embarrassing for the authorities, you know." Phew.

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