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  1. Politics
27 November 1998

Hush, hush! The workers will hear

When the upper classes were in charge we didn't need official secrecy, explains Phillip Knightley

By Phillip Knightley

David Shayler is a fat, jolly chap who wants to blow the whistle on his hard-drinking former colleagues who work in what he says is an inefficient security service, MI5. They want to lock him up so as to keep him quiet, and have invoked the Official Secrets Act. What has escaped everyone in this laughable affair is the role played by those two pillars of British society – class and xenophobia.

The government (one committed to a Freedom of Information Act, mind you) has managed to have Shayler held in jail in France for four months while it tried and failed to extradite him, and has imprisoned his MI6 colleague, Richard Tomlinson, in Britain and then pursued him halfway around the world – all in the name of the Official Secrets Act.

This law came into being in 1889 because Whitehall mandarins suddenly realised that their ranks were being invaded by the lower classes. Britain was meant to be run by public school chaps, imbued with the culture of honourable secrecy.

But better education and expanding government was bringing in men whose background was the world of unions and the workplace – officials of the mines inspectorate, for example. Add to these an army of boy clerks and female typists and an increasingly aggressive press, and the potential for open government looked a frightening possibility.

The first act was quite mild but soon Britain decided it needed a secret service to counter a German spy menace that existed only in the imagination of the Daily Mail. (In 1906, the Daily Mail ran a story of “the German invasion of 1910” and promoted it with sandwichmen parading up and down London streets dressed in spiked helmets and Prussian-blue uniforms.)

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The civil servants charged with setting it up were terribly embarrassed. Spying was a dirty business more suited to foreigners than to Britons. But, if they had to do it, they decided, it must be in such a manner that, if their spies were detected, they could swear that they had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with them.

So we ended up with a secret, non- existent, non-accountable intelligence service staffed by non-existent officers – who since they were non-existent could pay no income tax – and a secret, non- existent, non-accountable security service to catch foreign spies in Britain and keep our own spies in line.

The mandarins realised that, if any of this got out, even Daily Mail readers would crack their sides laughing. There would have to be a new, tougher Official Secrets Act. The 1889 act allowed a defence of public interest and lack of criminal intent. This would be removed. Further, the new law, unlike the earlier one, would cover all possessors of official information whether government employees or not, and all publishers of unauthorised information, including the press. And since it was often difficult to prove that someone was a spy, the “moral certainty” that he or she was would be considered sufficient to convict.

But how to get such an act, one which has dominated the 20th-century treatment of public secrecy in Britain, through parliament, when at least some MPs were committed to civil liberties? Easy. It was rushed through on a sleepy summer’s afternoon in 1911 when most MPs had already slipped away for the sacred weekend. It passed through all its stages without a word of explanation from the ministry in charge.

And what about the press? David Vincent, the author of The Culture of Secrecy in Britain 1832-1996, puts it in one crisp sentence: “The failure of the dogs to bark was a consequence of their assumption that they would continue to be fed.”

That takes us back to class. The mandarins’ principal concern was not with what was being disclosed but with who was disclosing it. Attempts by ordinary journalists to get information from junior civil servants were to be deplored because neither could be trusted. (Efforts by the Sunday Times in the 1960s to create a “Whitehall correspondent” foundered in the face of just such opposition.) But mandarins and cabinet ministers could leak as much as they liked, off and on the record, to editors and proprietors because they were their social peers – a game that still goes on today.

As a fall-back position, the director of naval intelligence came up with a brilliant idea: “Put the press to their honour, in the schoolboy sense of the term . . . by issuing a communique to the Press Association stating what is to be carried out and asking them to co-operate in [foregoing] the publication of information likely to be of value to foreign countries.” And so, in 1912, the D-Notice Committee was born, without informing parliament, and it continues to this day.

Even if the present government carries out its promise to introduce a Freedom of Information Act, it apparently has no intention of repealing the Official Secrets Act: that, along with 1960s legislation on interception of communications and the security services, will remain untouched.

The government’s path should be clear. Sweep away the whole culture of secrecy that began in 1889. Abolish the Official Secrets Act. Give any whistle-blower a public interest defence. Bring in a Freedom of Information Act as soon as possible. Decide what security and intelligence services we need in the 21st century and set them up under full parliamentary control.

The trouble is that political leaders, no matter how anti-secret services they are in opposition, are seduced by them when they come to power. Churchill, Kennedy, Thatcher – all hard-headed politicians – fell under the spies’ spell. Has this happened to Tony Blair and Jack Straw?

Phillip Knightley’s “The Second Oldest Profession: a history of intelligence services” is published by Pan