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I won't tell if you don't: why do we so love our secrets?

Matthew Parris

I was listening to the Today programme when Clare Short dropped what we have decided to call her bombshell.

I heard the very slight hesitation in her voice. I heard John Humphrys’s brain whir. I heard him decide this was interesting. I heard her near recoil as it struck her just how interesting he had decided to find it. I heard her mental shrug — “in for a penny, in for a pound”. I heard his gear change from “hm, what’s this worth?” to “roll up, folks: now what am I bid for this prize bombshell?” And I heard something else: the scratching of a hundred editorial heads across the nation. “Cripes — she said it! Mind you, we knew it already. So do we yelp — or do we yawn?” That was the question. In note form, then, the arguments for yelping:

1. Nothing like it ever been said on air by former Cabinet minister (get researcher to check).

2. Spookdom will be in uproar.

3. Story has potential legs — stone-walling by grim-faced PM — reaction from UN Secretary-General — red faces in Washington — furious colleagues round on Short — breach of Official Secrets Act (do ministers sign OSA? Get researcher to check).

4. Fertile field for think pieces. Spying on friends — should we do it? etc (find spook pundit for comment — Philip Knightley?).

5. Doddle of a story to link in with news agenda: “In the wake of collapse of Katharine Gun prosecution . . . New twist . . . No escape for Blair from Iraq rack . . .”

Arguments for yawning:

1. Everybody knows we spy on these people, don’t they?

2. It’s only Clare. Bored with Clare. Know where she’s coming from.

3. Major/Thatcher probably did it too (try for J. Major interview (but he won’t)).

4. Irresponsible to hype? Readers/listeners more grown-up than journalists?

5. How will other papers/broadcasters play this? Danger of looking naive/patsy for Clare’s agenda, if others relegate to p5

“DIVISION!” cries the imaginary Speaker in the editor’s mind. “Clear the Lobby. Yelps to the right, Yawns to the left.” The decision was not hard. The Yelps had it by an easy margin. But I doubt I was alone in sensing that this was a story which for a few hours on Wednesday we could have chosen as a nation to see as either ephemeral, or stunning. We chose to be stunned. We shall yelp all weekend.

In their capacity to shock us by what we had all assumed for years, stories about British Intelligence may be compared with the sexuality of Peter Mandelson. I was taken straight back to the BBC Newsnight studio late at night on October 27, 1998 when I cited Mr Mandelson as evidence that there was no problem being gay in a modern Cabinet.

I took fright only when I saw Jeremy Paxman taking fright. I took even more fright when it became clear that the entire British media had decided that a fact they had reported umpteen times before had suddenly become the news of the hour. I was sacked as a columnist from The Sun, while a BBC memorandum to staff banned from the corporation’s output any mention of Mr Mandelson’s private life — a ban which I suppose is still in force.

Maybe Clare Short is less bothered by the fuss she has caused than I was by mine, but I doubt she fully expected it. Where but in Britain does there exist this remarkable capacity to be shocked by what we already know? Rather like those wives who are pretty damned sure their husbands are having an affair, but would prefer not to hear the fact stated, it seems that what affronts us is not the truth, of which we were more or less aware, but a change in the status of the truth.

To turn a blind eye is of course a human rather than an exclusively British propensity, but when it comes to creating a special category — “known but not acknowledged as known” — for political as well as personal truths, it must be said that we British do the logical splits with exceptional ease.

I should like to see the results of background opinion polling on the question of spying on our friends. I should like to see the following question put to a representative cross-section of (first) national political journalists, and then of the wider public:

Did you until recently think that if the national interest is thought to require it, British Intelligence is prepared to engage in clandestine eavesdropping not only on Britain’s enemies but also our friends?

Tick a, b, c or d:

(a) I was fully aware of this; (b) I would not have been at all surprised; (c) the possibility had never occurred to me; (d) I had no idea.

I reckon that, among journalists, between a half and three quarters would have said they were fully aware, while the rest would not have been at all surprised. At most, one or two innocent lambs might have thought it no more than a possibility. None at all would have replied that they had no idea.

As to the public, I am less sure, but my guess is that between a half and three quarters would have responded that they would not have been at all surprised. A quarter at most might have had no idea, and a similar number might have been aware of the possibility, or fully aware.

In other words (if I am right) the great majority of the British public (and an even larger majority, I suspect, of Times readers) will not have been in the least surprised at what Clare Short confirmed this week.

With what other item of public knowledge — or at least public suspicion — might we compare this? If I rely on the arithmetic alone of likely responses, my suggestions will seem absurd.

A similar proportion of the public probably guesses (or knows) that Madrid is the capital of Spain, or that whales are mammals. Neither fact, however, though it would come as news to a substantial minority of our countrymen, wouldmerit a headline, though both are of great importance.

No, for useful comparisons we must look to sheepish truths, truths undenied but which prefer not to speak their name. That in their videos, pop idols are only mouthing the words of their songs, for instance; that most government backbench MPs warn the Prime Minister in advance what they are going to ask him at Questions; that honours are routinely given as a reward for political donations; that Have I Got News For You is rigged.

As I know to my cost but not regret, when you publish what most people already know, but where there exists an unspoken convention that it will not be said out loud, two quite distinct groups of critics attack, one from one side and one from the other. Half your critics accuse you of trying to make a sensation out of the blindingly obvious, and the other half berate you for shattering a delicate but important myth.

In the Mandelson/Newsnight case, for example, I think Peter and his friends considered the personal side of his life as a delicate but important myth. Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, I endured a barrage of abuse from both groups of critics over my revelation that the guests on Celebrity Countdown were helped with their answers. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is a potent maxim in areas wider than homosexuality in the nation’s Armed Forces.

What our intelligence operations get up to abroad is in the same case. It is considered by turns blindingly obvious to most people, or a delicate but important myth. So — it is said — John Humphrys shouldn’t have asked, and Clare Short shouldn’t have told.

I think it’s important to ask and important to tell. A real secret is one thing (spies do and must have these) but where we encounter a general truth which is at the same time widely known yet thought scandalous to acknowledge, we should ask: why the pseudo secrecy? It cannot be to prevent the knowledge spreading because it is already out. Could it then be that by refusing to have it said out loud we are protecting ourselves from confronting it?

I believe so. There is a good case for and a good case against spying on our friends, a discussion to be had, and no reason why a British Prime Minister should not be obliged to have it. I come down, on balance (and with difficulty) against. You may take a different view. We could debate it. But until governments acknowledge that the practice even exists, it is hard for that debate to begin. Three cheers, then, for Clare Short. The irrepressible in pursuit of the unmentionable is a stirring sight.