We can no longer rely on the public right to know being upheldby Richard Norton-Taylor / February 6, 2020 / Leave a comment
“National security!” The phrase echoes around Whitehall. Once the appeal of last resort for ministers and officials desiring secrecy, it is invoked with increasing frequency as they face the prospect of wrongdoing being exposed, or simply embarrassment.
The cry goes up to suppress information and stifle debate. Egged on by their advisers, politicians hope that parliament and public opinion will defer to claims that disclosure would endanger British security. A claim that national security has been breached is deployed as the ultimate weapon in Whitehall’s arsenal, with results ranging from the age-old mantra “we do not comment on intelligence matters” through to the full force of the criminal law.
Refusal to comment, court injunctions, charges under the Official Secrets Act have all been used—in the name of protecting national security—to ban the media from covering allegations that British intelligence agencies colluded with the CIA in torture; to prevent reporting on the way communications are intercepted, and to punish a GCHQ employee for blowing the whistle on US plans to bug UN offices before the invasion of Iraq. In these and many other cases the government was eventually forced to back down or judges made clear that disclosure was justified to expose misconduct.
But in such an environment can we always rely on the public’s right to know being upheld?
Because they have found it a flexible friend, it is natural that governments have been reluctant to define “national security” too tightly. Most people would probably assume it means specifically the protection of the country from violent attacks. The 1989 Security Service Act goes much further. MI5’s task, it says, is to protect us “against threats from espionage, terrorism and sabotage, from the activities of agents of foreign powers and from actions intended to overthrow or undermine parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means” (emphasis added). I was once told that I was damaging national security—in this case, the future of British food supplies—by writing about the threats to health from the use on British farms of 2,4,5-T, the herbicide and active ingredient of Agent Orange, used by the US as a defoliant in Vietnam.
A succession of statutes, often introduced as an immediate response to terrorist attacks,…