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2002 August 4

John Humphrys: Knowledge is power: that's why we're a secret society

The Sunday Times

Our political leaders complain endlessly that we do not trust them. They have a point. But trust is a two-way street. Why should we trust them when they clearly don't trust us? And if they do trust us, how come they keep so much secret from us? Take the PowderJect affair.
There was a brief flurry in the political dovecotes a couple of months ago when it emerged that the government had awarded a contract worth £32m to the PowderJect company to supply 20m doses of smallpox vaccine in case of a terrorist attack. The problem was that Paul Drayson, the firm's owner, had given two £50,000 donations to the Labour party. Dr Drayson and a succession of ministers said it was monstrous to suggest a link and the story curled up and died.

It came to life again last week when a senior scientist at the independent Potomac Institute in America claimed that the vaccine was the wrong sort. Terrorists were most likely to use a "battle-strain" virus from Russia. The Lister vaccine Britain had bought was useless against it.

That was handy stuff for the conspiracy theorists -- just what they needed to prove dodgy dealings. Except that, once again, the government said it was nonsense and this time they won independent support from, among others, John Oxford, a professor of virology at Queen Mary's School of Medicine. He called it "pretty close" to garbage.

Now you and I are reasonable people. We know government is a tricky business and most politicians do their best. So why do they make life so difficult for themselves? Suspicions over PowderJect were increased because the contract was not subjected to the normal tendering procedures. Why not? National security considerations, old boy.

So who was on the expert committee that advised on the right sort of vaccine? Can't possibly tell you that.

Okay, how were they chosen? Sorry, no can do.

Well, what about the evidence they used to inform their decisions? Good God, d'you want to hand this country over to the terrorists? It's a killer, that "national security" argument. In America they've been obsessed with it since September 11. So naturally they would be more cagey about their smallpox vaccine contract. Not exactly. They published a fat document called "Requests for Proposals" and invited 10 companies to submit detailed bids. Four companies were shortlisted and when the contract was finally signed, their health department published the details and held a press conference. That's the way it is in America.

At the height of the cold war I was based in Washington and wanted to make a film about their missile defence system. I rang the Pentagon, expecting the "national security" brush-off. What I got was an apologetic official explaining that a slight charge would have to be made to cover the cost of copying the documents they would send me. Oh, and we'd have to go through some modest training procedures if we were to fly on a B-52 mission . . . and when would it be convenient for us to film in a command and control bunker? In this country you can't even find out how many times the cabinet meets and how long the average meeting lasts. And yes, I'm referring to the cabinet elected by our votes to govern our country. Questions were asked about that in the Lords earlier this year but no answers were given. It is "established practice not to reveal cabinet proceedings".

But nobody was asking about "proceedings" -- just how often and how long they met. So why the secrecy? Because the answer might "harm the frankness and candour of internal discussion". How? Oh, forget it. Life's too short.

You wonder how it can be that Britain and America -- both Anglo-Saxon democracies -- can have such utterly different attitudes to government secrecy. The answer lies in how they came about and ultimately in the words of Francis Bacon: nam et ipsa scientia potestas est. Knowledge itself is power.

The British political system evolved out of a power structure that was the opposite of democratic. All those barons, whispering to one another in dark corners of the palace, enjoyed and profited from their intrigues. Writing in Latin helped. Our leaders may have dumped the Latin, but not the wish to keep what they know to themselves. The New World was to be government of the people, by the people, for the people. If knowledge is power, it had to be shared. Constitutional amendments helped. Americans have a right to know what is going on. We don't.

In their hearts the politicians know it's outrageous. John Major introduced an Open Government Code in 1994. But it is honoured as much in the breach as the observance. Hence the cabinet meetings nonsense. This government has passed a Freedom of Information Act, but the new law won't even come into force until 2005. I'd love to know why it takes that long for Whitehall to get its act together, but I expect that's a secret. And anyway, the law is a pale shadow of what was promised.

There's no mystery about freedom of information. We should be entitled to know everything ministers and their servants get up to unless the disclosure is clearly against the public interest. It's that simple. That's more or less what the white paper promised. An information commissioner would adjudicate on whether disclosure would risk "substantial harm". That's gone. It has been watered down to "prejudicial" to public interest. And the ruling of the commissioner can be vetoed by ministers.

Remember, we're not talking here about the battle orders for the SAS -- nor even the content of the chancellor's budget. This covers anything to do with the formulation of government policy plus the communications of ministers and anything to do with their private office.

So if you'd like to know how and why a particular policy was arrived at and the advice given to ministers by civil servants . . . forget it. How can we make our own judgments on whether governments are taking the right decisions if we don't have the information on which they based those policies? We can't.

Forget about America. As the Campaign for Freedom of Information points out, you need only look at what the Irish government has done. Under their new law ministers may veto only on issues covering defence, security, foreign relations and law enforcement. Everything else -- including advice to ministers -- is up for grabs.

Maybe you're too busy with your own affairs to worry about such arcane matters as government policy-making. But I'll bet you'd like to know if hospitals take the proper steps to guard against spreading such hideous diseases as CJD. Tough. The health department suppressed a report in February on precisely that subject. An internal letter said: "In the light of the somewhat negative outcome recorded by the visiting assessors at the majority of clinical centres, there is a need to ensure at the express request of ministers that the . . . reports remain strictly confidential." Apparently progress on improving sterilisation would be "compromised" if the findings were to enter the public domain in an "inappropriate or unauthorised form". Most reassuring.

Still, things are bound to get better, even if we have to wait so long for an inadequate law . . . aren't they? Don't bank on it. An ominous sign is that the veto has already been used under the 1994 code -- and it had nothing to do with national security. The Tories wanted to know how often Home Office ministers had declared a possible conflict of interest between their public duties and private affairs. The ministers argued that to answer the question would breach privacy and undermine discussion. The parliamentary ombudsman (forerunner to the information commissioner) disagreed. He was overruled. That was back in November.

When the cabinet secretary was asked about it at a select committee a few weeks ago it emerged that the decision to overrule had been taken "at the highest level".

Oddly enough ministers are much more sensitive when it comes to us getting information about them than about them getting information about us. Our old friend "national security" is used to justify all sorts of snooping on our phones and on our e-mails and on who we chat to on the internet. You can't say governments don't appreciate the value of knowledge. They know their Bacon.
Aug 4 02