Daily archives: May 2, 2007

Peculiar Coincidence

Stephen Fry and I both attended the Paston School in North Walsham, Norfolk, a local state Grammar. I gather from his autobiography, Moab is My Washpot, that he disliked it a lot, as did I.

It appears that we were not just at the same school, but in the same year and class. How astonishing that the same class from a small state school in Norfolk should produce two Rectors of the distant Dundee University.

The peculiar thing is that I have no recollection of Stephen Fry at all. He was apparently only there for a year, but at 16, presumably already enormous, and in the same class, I should have thought he would have been unmissable.

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Clive Ponting and the Whistle Blowers

Twenty-five years ago today an Argentinean warship, the General Belgrano, was sunk by a British submarine during the Falklands war. Three hundred and twenty two people were killed and the Sun newspaper celebrated with its infamous GOTCHA headline. Although much debate was held over the military necessity or otherwise of the sinking, it become clear that the warship was outside the exclusion zone imposed by the British and, at the time of the attack, was heading away back towards the Argentinean mainland. However, the British Prime Minister of the day, Margaret Thatcher, attempted to mislead MPs about the ships location and course.

Clive Ponting was a senior civil servant who had the job of drafting replies and answers on the sinking of the warship Belgrano. Believing that the Government was deliberately misleading the House of Commons, a select committee and the public, he blew the whistle and sent two documents to Tam Dalyell MP. The documents were somehow passed to the Chairman of the select committee on Foreign Affairs, who, in turn, gave them back to the Secretary of State at the MoD. Ponting was then prosecuted for breach of the Official Secrets Act.

Ponting was subsequently acquitted after a high profile trial that, in turn, led to a tightening of the Official Secrets Act to remove the defence of public interest. Ponting went on to work as a Reader in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Wales, Swansea until his retirement in 2004.

In our current time the names of Katherine Gunn, David Kelly, Brian Jones, Craig Murray and others will be added to the list of whistle blowers. Its a fine tradition, essential to reigning in the excesses of the state. Long may it continue.

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The Complexity of Truth

I have now returned from Russia to Shepherd’s Bush.

This post started as a response to a comment by Bridget Dunne on the post below, who was concerned there may have been a miscarriage of justice in the fertiliser bomb case. My own view is that the fertilser bomb, 7/7 and 21/7 cases deserve to be discussed in a much more penetrative and complex way than is being done at present. I have a strong feeling that few on any side will agree with this posting, which is probably why I need to make it.

Bridget has a good point in that certainly the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four should make us very wary. I can now reveal that I went to the Old Bailey at the request of the defence to discuss giving expert evidence in the fertiliser bomb plot case.

In closed session, a representative of the security services had given evidence that, in no circumstances would we accept intelligence from the Pakistanti secret services if we thought it was obtained by torture. He was simply lying, which may be a point of appeal. In the event the defence did not call me.

My own view is that there was indeed a bomb plot here, but whether all five defendants were involved is another matter. I fear some might have been unfairly dragged into the net. There are also questions to be asked about apparent agent provocateur activity by the Pakistani ISI, a deeply complex organisation which contains its own jihadists, and its own anti-jihadists, either of which factions might have felt their interests served if an actual bomb had gone off in London.

But we should be wary of the attitude that there is no such thing as Islamic terrorism and that those convicted are always innocent. I think at least some of these were guilty, and MI5 and the police do indeed deserve a measure of congratulation.

I also accept that there is a great deal of truth in MI5’s defence on 7/7, that you simply can’t follow up on every lead. Bluntly, I would not want to live in the kind of Police State that could, and the logic of many of those posting on 7/7 failure would tend to lead us towards the kind of massive surveillance and intrusion of Karimov’s Uzbekistan. I have seen that, and believe me, we do not want more of it here.

The truth is also that it would require levels of pressure on the Muslim population that would lead to a still greater and justified feeling of oppression, and engender more terrorism in reaction. Let’s not head for vicious spiral country. On balance, MI5 and the police do a good job despite constant political spin, pressure and interference in their work. Hindsight is a wonderful thing; identifying cause is so much simpler once you actually have an effect.

But where the security services and police did go wrong was after 7/7, in repeated lies to the public, the media and parliament over how much they did know. It turns out not to have been true that these bombers “Came out of nowhere” and “Had not crossed the radar screen before”. This overly defensive reaction was perhaps understandable as a first instinct before all information could be collated from the files, but maintained far too long. Why? And how involved were the spin doctors?

There is material here which indeed needs public inquiry. But let it not be based on the notion that security must never “fail”. That is a false direction. Much more important is how to reduce the despair that drives young British people to contemplate desperate acts of violence. As has frequently been proven, the most important step that can be taken is to stop our blind support for the appalling Bush policy of aggression in the Middle East. In the bigger picture, the dead, maimed and bereaved of 7/7 should count as part of the Blair legacy.

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