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17 Jan 2006

Transcript of Newsnight Report on the al-Jazeera FOIA Request:

Paxman: Newsnight has learned that the government is considering a Freedom of information request by the arabic TV station al-Jazeera to release a memo which is said to detail the discussions between George Bush and Tony Blair on bombing the station's headquarters. Tim Whewell has seen the correspondence, he's here with us now. First of all, remind us of the background please.

Whewell: This concerns discussions that took place during a summit in April 2004 between Blair and Bush, which Blair is said to have dissuaded Mr Bush from his idea of bombing al-Jazeera.
al-Jazeera is now trying under the Freedom of Information request to get these documents disclosed. There has been a previous attempt which was turned down. What al-Jazeera is now doing is acting on behalf of two British citizens living in Qatar, where al-Jazeera is based and the claim is that these people would have become victims of any attack. The legal argument in English Law is that the duty to disclose any possible crime would override any duty of confidence to an ally.

Paxman:What are the chances of success do you reckon?

Whewell: Well, it's very hard to say... but what's interesting is that in reply to the previous request, the government appeared to go further than it has ever gone before in admitting both the existence and the subject of the memo. The request was specifically for information relating to discussions about the bombing of al-Jazeera, and the answer was, from the Cabinet Office was 'Yes, we do have relevant information'.

Now, if the request is turned down again, there will be an external request to the Freedom of Information Commissioner. It's very hard to say what he'll do, but what's interesting I think, is that the government's now facing a demand for this on three different fronts. First of all in Parliament, second in the courts, and of course two people have been charged under the Official Secrets act, and the first thing their lawyers are going to do when this gets to the Old Bailey, is to demand disclosure of the documents. We've got it under that, and we've got it under the new Freedom of Information legislation.

Paxman: Tim, thank you.