Whitehall unconfidential: the censors are on the run 1

The Guardian writes on how powerless Tony Blair has become to stem a tide of embarrassing disclosures, including the Tashkent Telegrams.

“Another renegade ex-ambassador, Craig Murray – forced out of his job in Uzbekistan for objecting to British/US complicity in torture – is defying the same act with impunity. Over the New Year, he published on his website many classified Foreign Office telegrams and, in a modern touch, has ensured their circulation to more than 4,000 bloggers.”

By David Leigh in The Guardian

A series of important battles is going on between the prime minister’s men and a growing number of more junior officials over who is allowed to censor whom. Censorship attempts always have their funny side. Everyone had quite a laugh last year when Lance Price, the one-time spin doctor, defiantly published his diary entry saying that “we are devising a glasses strategy”. The short-sighted premier’s new specs were to be laid “accidentally” on his desk and a friendly profile-writer allowed to spot them. But Blair wanted Calvin Kleins, while Alastair Campbell thought an NHS pair would play better. Sir Gus O’Donnell, the cabinet secretary, subsequently pronounced of these disclosures: “Making money out of private conversations is wrong” – which, considering the circumstances, was even more amusing.

There were plenty of guffaws to be had when the former ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer avenged various slights from Labour politicians in his Washington memoirs, gaily entitled DC Confidential. John Prescott batted back with unexpected wit, calling him a “red-socked fop”, and MPs had sketchwriters in stitches with one of the most comical committee hearings in recent memory, as they lined up to hurl insults at the languidly besocked one. “Disreputable!” they cried. “Charlatan!” Meyer riposted, apropos John Major: “I have never used the word ‘underpants’!” The cabinet secretary, in his famous impression of a public-school head, looked down his nose and delivered that classic line: “I was disappointed.” How we laughed.

But there is an unamusing aspect to the shambles into which censorship efforts have degenerated. A cabinet office civil servant faces trial, and jail, under the Official Secrets Act for allegedly disclosing a transcript of a Bush-Blair conversation about bombing al-Jazeera. Another renegade ex-ambassador, Craig Murray – forced out of his job in Uzbekistan for objecting to British/US complicity in torture – is defying the same act with impunity. Over the New Year, he published on his website many classified Foreign Office telegrams and, in a modern touch, has ensured their circulation to more than 4,000 bloggers.

One cable, from the Foreign Office’s then chief lawyer, Michael Wood, in March 2003, is marked “Confidential: Uzbekistan intelligence possibly obtained under torture”. Wood refers to meetings with the intelligence adviser Matthew Kydd and Murray’s superior, Linda Duffield. He writes: “Craig had said his understanding was that it was … an offence under the UN convention to receive or possess information under torture. I said that I did not believe that was the case.”

Murray’s own protest telegram of July 2004 says a subsequent meeting took place at the Foreign Office “precisely to consider the question of Uzbek intelligence material obtained [via the CIA] under torture”. The meeting decided it should continue. “The principal argument deployed was that the intelligence material disguises the precise source. This is morally, legally, and practically wrong,” Murray protests.

He published because the Foreign Office had ordered him to delete the telegrams from his forthcoming memoir, Murder in Samarkand. The Foreign Office’s only reaction to this provocation has been to say this week: “We are still in discussion about the contents of his book.” It might seem a bit unfair that Murray should get away with his defiance while a lowly communications officer is dragged into the Old Bailey.

But a document has fallen into the Guardian’s hands that seems to explain why ministers have become so bankrupt in these failures to stem a tide of disclosures (most revolve in one way or another around Iraq and allegations of our craven relationship with the US).

Murray, abiding by official regulations, submitted his memoirs to the Foreign Office last autumn. Before sending them to the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, in December for a final ruling, an official, Heather Yasamee, was deputed to circulate each Whitehall person mentioned. In what may be the first review to decorate Murray’s bookjacket, she said: “He writes vividly about his colleagues, not always flatteringly, and with much gratuitous comment.”

We have obtained one of Ms Yasamee’s private Whitehall letters, written last October. But publication of its contents here does not make it likely that the Guardian is in turn due for a knock on the door by Special Branch. She writes that the government is entitled to ask for alterations to passages in Murray’s book that “might damage national security, international relations or confidential relationships”. But this “depends on the willingness of the author to make changes”.

She warns: “To succeed with any legal action, we would have to demonstrate clearly to a court that real damage would result from publication. From previous experience and advice … we know that the damage threshold is very high for successful court action. It is questionable whether this book falls into that category.” And she gives the game away by saying that it is questionable if “more public airing of Craig’s alleged grievances is in anybody’s interest”.

In other words, attempts to censor unwelcome memoirs are largely bluff. It is a corollary that poor Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s UN representative, need not have been forced last year to abandon his memoirs had he – or his publishers – been less spineless. One guesses Sir Jeremy will be as irritated to read the Foreign Office’s words as Craig Murray will be entertained.

These admissions within Whitehall make the much-touted studies by government lawyers into the possibility of a new legal weapon – crown copyright – to censor memoirs seem far removed from the real world. Instead of shouting abuse and sending for the police, it might be more profitable for the prime minister and his myrmidons to accept that a culture change is occurring; some members of Britain’s governing classes don’t seem to see any longer what is to be gained by keeping their mouths shut. This is an interesting development, and possibly one that should be encouraged.

After all, it is tyrannies that are always secretive. Democracies should be more transparent. And, at the very least, the free publication of as many of these disclosures as possible will give ordinary citizens a useful yardstick against which to measure a pair of intimate and self-serving memoirs due out in future years, and expected to make an absolute fortune for their authors – who are, as everyone in government is well aware, Alastair Campbell and Blair himself.

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One thought on “Whitehall unconfidential: the censors are on the run

  • irritant

    Hi Craig,

    Lobster has given you a small mention on page 51 (top of right column).

    Am going to cross-post this on Tim's site.

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