BBC Radio 4 Week in Westminster Saturday 8th December 2012 11:00am gives a glimpse by a couple of very experinced journalists who have served on a couple of Inquiries, which have not leaked their findings before the official publication of their reports.
Recently the government has had some success in keeping announcements secret as was the case with the appointment of the new governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney. On the other hand Whitehall leaks occur with some regularity and even sometimes with approval. Is there a new impetus to preserve secrecy and if so how necessary is it in an open accountable society? Peter Riddell director of the Institute for Government and George Jones of the Leveson inquiry recount their involvement with secrecy.
Here is a Spy Blog transcript of the relevant programme segment.
N.B. nobody who debates the Interception of phone calls or of eavesdropping electronic audio or video "probes" should understimate the difficulty of producing accurate transcripts of audio conversations, - no software can do this 100% and humans (like us) usually have to reply sections several times, even of broadcast quality recordings like this one:
Sue Cameron [SC] The autumn statement didn't leak, well, apart from what you might call official leaks that were actually authorised by the Treasury. But there we no unofficial leaks. And a week earlier, Chancellor George Osborne had enjoyed a great moment of political theatre, with his surprise Commons announcement that the new Governor of the Bank of England was to be Mark Carney, currently Governor of the Bank of Canada. That news never leaked either and nor did the findings of the Leveson Inquiry into the press. So is government secrecy back in fashion ?
I discussed the secrets of secrecy with Peter Riddle, the director of the Institute for Government and journalist George Jones, one of Lord Justice Leveson's advisors. I began by asking Peter Riddle if Budget secrecy had been really tight in the past.
Peter Riddle [PR]: Absolutely, indeed, a Chancellor of the Exchequer had to resign, in 1947, Hugh Dalton, because he was crossing the Lobby and, er, a very distinguished political correspondent came up and said "is there a bit more on fags, a bit more on booze ?" and he kind of nodded and it appeared in what was then the Stop Press of the papers, which was [sic] technically appeared before he had made a Statement and he had to resign.
[SC]: How have things changed ? Have they changed because, Special Advisors and the Treasury itself are "leaking" much more or are explaining things much more to people ?
[PR]: I think there are two factors, one is an underlying one towards greater openness in government, reinforced by the internet, I mean there is far, far more information. There is a much more open public debate that the Treasury used to guard its secrets or forecasts, where now you've got an independent Office of Budget Responsibility which does the forecasts and lots and lots of people outside are, so it's no longer got a monopoly of the advice or forecasting on that. And there's a whole atmosphere where things are much more open, I mean not totally open, not as open as they pretend, but thet are much more open.
And the second thing is the issue of managing expectations and the Treasury want to be in there, influencing the way that the Budget will be recieved and that I think has trumped Budget secrecy, in the priority of Chancellors of the Exchequer. And you've had some ones who are very keen on getting the politics right, Gordon Brown and certainly now with George Osborne, so that's why, things come out, because they want to affect expectations.
SC: Now there is still, of course, a great deal of secrecy in other areas, George Jones, you were one of the Assessors, one of the advisors, in the Leveson Inquiry, and that did not leak, before it came out officially. What sort of precautions, were taken, to keep the whole Leveson proceedings secret ?
George Jones [GJ]: Well we were asked to sign up to quite a complicated and quite severe confidentiality agreement and also we were allowed to see in advance Witness Statements, but we could only read those through a secure link, on a computer . You couldn't print it off, so I could sit at home and I could read it, but I couldn't print it off in the old fashioned way and read a, a paper version of it. And then of course, when we began the actual draughting of the report, we had to go up to, a secure office in the High Court, in the Strand, where we could read sections of the Report, but we couldn't take them away with us, so, you put them back in an envelope when you had finished reading them. I think they were really worried that people when they get to a [sic fairly advanced age that I am, you would take it away with you, I'd sitting reading it on the train, fall asleep, either some body would take it away read it or I would leave it on the train.
Much younger, supposedly highly trustworthy people in Whitehall, also leave secret documents on the train e.g.
It meant a lot of travelling, but actually I think that way, keeping it secure in the building, means, it doesn't get mislaid and it does prevent leaks.
SC: But you said you could see Witness Statements on computers, could you see parts of the Report on computer at home ?
GJ: No, we couldn't, there was no emailing of any sections of it, so email traffic, text traffic, messages like that, weren't allowed for the, sensitive, elements of the Report. And of course, in the closing days, as we had to decide how much of the Report we would be prepared to sign up to and some of the more controversial elements over statutory underpinning and statutory backstops, they were very sensitive and of course that was the stuff which remained secure and didn't leak.
SC: Peter, you were on a Judicial Inquiry, one about rendition and Guantanamo Bay, although that was wound down, but were your experiences similar ?
Is even the name of the Detainee Inquiry headed by the retired senior Judge and Privy Counsellor Rt.Hon. Sir Peter Gibson (who resigned early from his position as RIPA Intelligence Services Commissioner) now a secret ?
See our Spy Blog Detainee Inquiry archive
The Detainee Inquiry was not a Judicial Inquiry although headed up by a retired senior Judge / RIPA Commissioner - it had no powers to compell witnessses etc. under the Inquiries Act 2005, unlike the Leveson Inquiry. After the inordinate delays to the Detainee Inquiry, Peter Riddle, reasonably enough resigned from it when he took up his current post.
PR: Yes, I mean, they wern't quite akin, ours was a Privy Council inquiry, which is a seperate legal basis, but the effect was very similar, to what George Jones describes and it dealt with some very sensitive Top Secret intelligence information, which we, saw. But you could only see it in the offices of the Inquiry, which were part of designated rooms which have a certain classification in Whitehall, where you can read secure stuff and you couldn't take anything away, there was no homework, so the only thing for which you got an email was entirely the mundane stuff about "We are meeting next Tuesday at ten o'clock" type stuff.
Even such "mundane" emails, sent through the government's own email system (to which the UK intelligence agencies have access to the Communications Data of, without any warrant or permsission from a Secretary of State - no judicial warrant reqired in the UK) would have been a critical leak of sensitive information, if those meetings had involved any evidence or face to face testimony from any intelligence service or other insiders who were acting as whistleblowers.
GJ: We were terribly worried that becaause we were an Inquiry looking into things , particularly phone hacking, blagging and accessing emails and that sort of thing, we thought, it would be a huge prize for some newspaper, if they could actually "hack" the Inquiry into phone hacking. So I think that was one of the reasons why, we kept such a tight grip on not sending stuff by email.
SC: Was it really justified, all this secrecy, you can quite understand it if you're dealing with foreign countries, with Guantanamo Bay, or with criminal offences, but things like whether you should have a legal underpinning to regulate the press, do you really have to go, is it really justifiable to have so much secrecy ?
Given the number of powerful people and vested interests trying to spin their way out of criticism by the Leveson Inquiry including some of them with access to Communications Data and perhaps even the contents of emailks or home or mobile computers or smartphones, this level of secrecy was necessary and it did no harm to the public.
GJ: Well, I think it is, because we could speak frankly and openly and we could say what we thought, and I think if you're going to reach a decision its very important, but don't forget that all the evidence , all the sessions, were televised. I mean anybody who followed the Inquiry, could clearly see the way that it was going, but I thiink when you come to reach key decisions and you want people to speak frankly, they need to do it, in a confidential atmosphere.
PR: In general, I think there has to be a "safe space", to use this ghastly cliche, where people are able to give advice, however, one wants as much as possible otherwise open. Also every one is aware of Freedom of Information Act, the one factor which hasn't been mentioned, and certainly in Whitehall they are very aware that, on many areas, the interpretation by the Information Commissioner mean that even more is being revealed than Whitehall would like.
Nothing of any value has come out of the Detainee Inquiry, no witnesses, nothing published - there is an interim report (wiythout having interviewed any witnesses) delivered to the Prime Minister David Cameron on 27th June 2012 but which is still being kept secret by Downing Street and the Ministry of Justice
Only our Freedom of Information Act request for the supposed intelligence agency witness / whistleblower protection from prosecution by the Cabinet Office and Attorney General might be if some use in a future Inquiry.