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5 July 1999

Labour embraces secrecy again

Journalists in the dock, information suppressed, telephones tapped: to Duncan Campbell, it sounds al

By Duncan Campbell

A few days ago, on 22 June, I watched Tony Blair on the evening news from Birmingham. He was reassuring us that Labour had not forgotten its traditional values, that the Party of the Millennium still bears a resemblance to its predecessors of the sixties and seventies.

Tony is right: absolutely, completely right; of course he is. It was just like this under Jim Callaghan, David Owen and Merlyn Rees.

And if I ever doubted it, the events of that same day, Tuesday 22 June, convinced me. That morning, at Bow Street Magistrates Court, in London, Tony Geraghty, a former Sunday Times reporter, was indicted along with Lieutenant-Colonel Nigel Wylde, a retired army officer, under the Official Secrets Act. The Attorney-General had consented to the prosecution, the court was told. The kernel of the alleged offence was that Geraghty’s book, The Irish War, published in 1998, revealed details of official computer surveillance systems used mainly in Northern Ireland. They are code-named Vengeful (vehicle surveillance) and Crucible (personal information).

Yet the book is still on sale, and the offending portions can be read around the world on the Internet ( Further, most of the information has been publicly known for years. As long ago as 1974, Merlyn Rees, then Northern Ireland secretary, revealed the existence of Vengeful. I wrote a book, published in 1986, which contained far more information on the matter than Geraghty’s. It attracted no attention.

So why is the government bothering? I’m not surprised by the case. I was the last journalist before Geraghty and Wylde to be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act. In the past 40 years only Labour governments have prosecuted journalists.

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Harold Wilson had come to power in 1974 with a pledge to repeal the relevant law. Yet three years later the state decided that my filing cabinet contained too much information for the safety of the realm. That my “secrets” were about as exciting and well-concealed as the Post Office Tower was beside the point. MI5 was determined that no Watergate-style journalism should take root in Britain. Indeed MI5 was remarkably vigilant at the time: as we now know, the files in its Mayfair offices listed Peter Mandelson as a communist, Jack Straw as a communist associate, Robin Cook (I believe) as a Trotskyist associate. My own file had – and for all I know still has – the more romantic designation of “unaffiliated revolutionary”.

So I was arrested and charged, along with Crispin Aubrey, a fellow journalist, and John Berry, a former intelligence corporal. Sam Silkin, the then attorney-general, gave consent for what became known (after our initials) as the ABC case. We were acquitted, but only after the case had dragged on for three years, during which we faced the prospect of 16 to 30 years’ imprisonment.

Former Labour ministers have since expressed their regrets. Merlyn Rees wrung his hands and tutted many times. Arthur Davidson QC, then the parliamentary secretary to the law officers, has angrily claimed that they were misled by the intelligence services. Agreeing that we should be prosecuted in the ABC case, he later told me, “was the worst decision I have ever taken in my life”.

But at the time of the case, the strongest campaigner against official secrecy and intelligence abuse was Robin Cook. In 1980 he was joined by a young barrister, Anthony Blair, who wrote a pamphlet for the National Union of Journalists castigating the Official Secrets Act and its abuse in the ABC prosecution. (Five years later, Tony, now an up-and-coming Treasury shadow, keen as mustard, sat on my Habitat sofa in Stoke Newington, asking for secret information leaked from the Bank of England to the New Statesman.)

Cook was one of my closest allies when I was in conflict with the law again, in 1987. The NS published a story about how the Ministry of Defence had deceived parliament and secretly committed £500 million to building an all-British signals intelligence satellite, code-named Zircon. I uncovered the story for television, but the BBC banned the programme after pressure from the intelligence services.

The day before publication, government solicitors converged on the NS offices to serve injunctions. The production manager was sent off with a blank cheque to find someone who would print the paper, while I left on my bike to stay in hiding until the story was safely out on the streets. Cook was the co-engineer of our strategy and he smuggled me into sanctuary in the Commons until the fuss was over. Within days, samizdat tapes of the banned BBC programme were out on the streets. A year later, it was shown on BBC2.

So after all these years, what has changed? On the same day that Geraghty appeared at Bow Street, the Guardian was full of the paper’s campaign against Jack Straw’s Freedom of Information Bill, with its 22 provisions for exempting almost everything we might want to know about. Anthony Barnett, the founding director of Charter 88, has pointed out that, under Section 44 (7), any public authority that breaks the law would be entitled to withhold information from the public and the Information Commissioner on the grounds that it would “expose the authority to proceedings for that offence”. Which, from the ministerial point of view, is perhaps a wise precaution: it was Merlyn Rees who, five years after leaving office, told the BBC he “understood quite clearly that there was no legal backing” for “many of the things that they [MI5] have to do, a break-in for example”.

Yet Labour’s pledge to introduce freedom of information and “place the burden on the public authorities to justify withholding information” has been policy for more than 20 years. In 1978, the Liberal MP Clement Freud came top of the ballot for private members’ bills and helpfully put forward his proposed Freedom of Information Bill, expecting support. The Labour cabinet wanted none of it. Instead, it was persuaded to endorse a new Official Secrets Bill aimed in part at criminalising investigative journalism, by creating a “jigsaw puzzle offence” of learning too much about government secrets, even from open sources.

When Labour faced losing a vote of confidence the following year, Callaghan offered Freud the law he wanted if he would miss a train and plausibly fail to arrive in London to vote the government down. Freud preferred not to trust him. He caught his train on time, and the last Labour government for 18 years fell.

Yes, indeed, as Anthony Barnett pointed out here last week (“Please stop patronising us”), new Labour is really just like old Labour. On that same Tuesday 22 June, close to MI6’s absurd new palace at Vauxhall Cross, you could have heard an important statement from John Abbott, the head of the National Criminal Intelligence Service. He backed Home Office plans to make a potential criminal of anybody who prefers to keep secret the information on their personal computer. Failure to hand over personal encryption keys on demand would be a new offence. Abbott said the penalty should be the same as that for the primary offence under investigation. So if Straw and parliament agree, you could get anything from 14 years to life for protecting your sources or your privacy.

Later the same day, Straw announced his review of the Interception of Communications Act. The previous week, Lord Nolan, Commissioner for the Interception of Communications, revealed that Straw and Donald Dewar (while Scottish secretary) had issued 2,031 warrants in a year for telephone tapping. During the Rees and even the Thatcher years, 500-600 warrants a year was the norm. Even Nolan’s figures do not reveal the actual number of people whose calls are being intercepted, let alone the huge numbers whose foreign communications are surveilled under general warrants issued by the foreign secretary to the electronic intelligence agency GCHQ. According to ex-intelligence sources from GCHQ and the Cabinet Office, these warrants have been used to target charities like Amnesty International and Christian Aid, individuals including Robert Maxwell, Tiny Rowland and the trade unionist Campbell Christie, as well as the Pope and the late Mother Teresa. Nor can Nolan tell us about the unprecedented demands on telecommunications companies to provide details of who calls whom, and other subscriber information. Police Review has reported that such requests now amount to tens of thousands every year, forcing the telephone companies to take on more full-time staff to service them.

What a pity that the Security Service Bill, introduced by a back-bench Labour MP in December 1979 under the ten-minute rule, never got anywhere. It proposed a prohibition on issuing general tapping warrants and a strict definition as to what constitutes subversive activity. The MP was Robin Cook.

No, Labour hasn’t left its traditional values behind. And Robin and Tony – well, they seemed very new once.

Duncan Campbell was a staff writer on the “New Statesman” from 1978-90, and the chairman of the Statesman and Nation Publishing Company from 1990-94

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