Political Commentary: The price of curbing daily excess

Click to follow
IT IS scarcely fashionable to defend Sir David Calcutt QC, but it must be said that the Government's treatment of his report last week was high-handed. It had, after all, commissioned the report itself, yet before it was even published, John Major let it be known that he was not in favour of a central recommendation: a statutory press complaints tribunal.

That news was entirely welcome to newspaper editors, but if the report had been on any other subject - say, prisons or mental care - it is easy to imagine the editorials criticising the Prime Minister's cavalier treatment of such high-level advice.

The Downing Street defence is that Mr Major merely shared his views with regional editors at a private meeting before the report had leaked out and before he had a chance to read it himself. Whatever the strength of that, there are two interpretations of the effect. One is that it demonstrated Mr Major's determination to avoid a full-scale row with the press. The other, more Machiavellian, view is that his swift rejection of an obviously draconian measure made it easier for the Government to promote other, less dramatic, controls on the press.

We will not know which of these is correct until the Government decides what to do. We do know it is planning new criminal offences relating to the use of bugging devices and other electronic equipment. We do not yet know - and nor apparently do ministers - how widely the proposed public interest defence will be drawn. There is widespread relish among senior ministers for Calcutt's criticism of the Press Complaints Commission and widespread determination to see fewer editors on it.

There is varying enthusiasm within the Cabinet for a new civil tort on privacy, but the Cabinet's two most prominent QCs, Kenneth Clarke and Michael Howard, are in favour. Both they, and by all accounts the Lord Chancellor, recognise that to command public support it will have to afford redress to the ordinary citizen as well as the rich and powerful. There is a talk of a low- cost legal process like the small claims court; and also of a possible official figure, comparable with the Trade Union Certification Officer, who can take legal action on a complainant's behalf.

Mr Clarke and Mr Howard are certainly right to be concerned about that: some of their colleagues pay lip service to the protection of private citizens, but most examples they fulminate about concern the Royal Family or politicians. Even Sir David seems principally concerned about - in Auden's phrase - public faces in private places.

The report, of course, is already famous for not going beyond the brief of examining excessive intrusion against privacy. Its tone is summed up by a stipulation that a voluntary Press Complaints Commission (which Sir David thinks is anyway no longer an alternative) would need a remit stipulating that the 'commission has no function positively to promote press freedom'. Yet Sir David may unintentionally have fuelled what promises to be a growing debate about a quite different issue affecting the press and its relations with government.

It was scarcely noticed that the ministerial meeting which considered the Calcutt report on Wednesday also had a long discussion on government secrecy. William Waldegrave, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, has valiantly been trying to find ways of persuading his colleagues to implement the Conservative manifesto commitment to more open government.

One fruit of his efforts will be the publication, particularly welcome to historians, of more government documents which have remained secret for longer than the usual 30 years. But Mr Waldegrave has hitherto had a lot more success in dealing with the past than the present. Appropriately, perhaps, not much has leaked out about Wednesday's discussion of secrecy. But by all accounts Mr Waldegrave is meeting stiff resistance from the rest of Whitehall. It is not an analogy Mr Waldegrave would welcome, but there is a striking resonance of the very first chapter of the original Yes, Minister.

Jim Hacker, like Mr Waldegrave, planned a White Paper on Open Government, and was committed by his party's manifesto to lifting secrecy. Sir Humphrey, his trusty permanent secretary, records in his diary a meeting with colleagues: 'I explained that we are calling the White Paper Open Government because you always dispose of the difficult bit in the title. It does less harm than in the statute books. It is the law of Inverse Relevance: the less you intend to do about something, the more you have to keep talking about it . . . Open Government is a contradiction in terms. You can be open - or you can have government.' Suddenly all this is not looking quite so hilarious.

The Tory manifesto grandly promised a review of more than 80 statutes containing secrecy provisions. (In fact, there are around 250 of them.) In many cases the scrapping of these secrecy clauses would make an appreciable difference to the lives of ordinary people. To take just one example: if the reports on individual firms by the Health and Safety Executive were published it might reduce the number of industrial accidents because of the public pressure on the firms to conform with the law. And it would cost the taxpayer next to nothing. Yet Mr Waldegrave, by all accounts, has so far won agreement for scarcely any such changes.

Whistleblowers who breach government confidentiality in order to draw attention to shortcomings in public services act, you might think, in accordance with the spirit of the Citizen's Charter; but there seems little chance at present that they will enjoy any protection under the law. Mr Waldegrave apparently proposed on Wednesday that in certain cases there should be a public interest defence against breaches of statutes on secrecy; this modest proposal seems to have been too radical for most of his Cabinet colleagues.

Finally, the increasingly beleaguered Mr Waldegrave has been urging a more relaxed regime covering the publication of civil servants' policy advice to ministers. Again, the Whitehall machine has succeeded so far in stopping him in his tracks.

The issue is a sharp one, because in a month's time Mark Fisher, the Labour MP, will introduce a Freedom of Information Bill in the Commons. Understandably Mr Waldegrave wants something to say in reply about what the Government itself intends to do about official secrecy. And here we return to the relevance of the Calcutt row.

There is a simple equation: the more determined the Government is to restrict the press from invading privacy, the more exposed it will be to opposition criticism on secrecy. Mr Waldegrave almost certainly appreciates this; many of his colleagues appear not to. Cabinet ministers muse enviously in private about the legal restrictions on the press in the United States, for example on bugging, without ever acknowledging that the American press, particularly in its relations with government, operates in a markedly different culture. The Freedom of Information Act is a potent symobol of that; but it is true too of the access which US journalists have to official information, in contrast to the culture of secrecy which still prevails in every corner of Whitehall.

The Government is now ready to legislate for the principal purpose of curbing the excesses of the press. It may find that more freedom of information is the quid pro quo.