Official secrets

In 1997, the new Labour government published a white paper setting out its proposals for a Freedom of Information Act. The opening paragraph stated:
"Unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in governance and defective decision-making. The perception of excessive secrecy has become a corrosive influence in the decline of public confidence in government. Moreover, the climate of public opinion has changed: people expect much greater openness and accountability from government than they used to."

The Daily Mirror published a report last week entitled, "Bush plot to bomb his Arab ally", which mentioned a leaked government memo that alleged that the US President, George Bush, planned to bomb al-Jazeera's headquarters in Qatar. But the UK government did not welcome the openness that such scrutiny could bring. Instead, the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, tried to silence newspaper editors.

The memo is reported as describing an alleged conversation between Bush and Blair in April 2005, when Bush apparently threatened to use "military action" against al-Jazeera. The government threatened newspaper editors with the Official Secrets Act (OSA). A civil servant has been charged under section 3 of the OSA and a researcher for the Labour MP for Northampton South, Tony Clarke, where the memo is said to have turned up, is being charged under section 5.

Ian Felstead , a media lawyer at Olswang writing for The Guardian, argues that the information apparently contained in the memo clearly raises questions of public interest: "For example, whether George Bush was seriously recommending that a news organisation located in a US ally's territory be bombed in order to stop unfavourable coverage of the Iraq war."

He also argues that that the lack of openness of the government in this case does more harm to national security than good and the prosecutions may have more to do with political expediency than a genuine attempt to safeguard the national interest: "This potential conflict has been recognised by the courts as long ago as the Spycatcher case in the late 1980s. More recently, Lord Bingham in the David Shayler case stated:

"There can be no government by the people if they are ignorant of the issues to be resolved, the arguments for and against different solutions and the facts underlying those arguments."

Felstead also argues that the media are in a different position to civil servants and security services personnel and therefore a public interest defence may apply when journalists are alleged to breach the OSA: "For, as the government itself noted, without openness and accountability, the public confidence will disappear."

When secrecy does more harm than good: The government is wrong to wield the Official Secrets Act over the leaked al-Jazeera memo (The Guardian, 28 November 2005)