With the present controversy over Wikileaks, and the whole matter of whether it is justifiable to put confidential information in the public domain, I trawled though my archive this week to an article I wrote for the Channel Island's Mensa Magazine, "Thinks!" in 1987, under the pseudonym Una Nancy Owen (fans of Agatha Christie will spot the reference from her book "And Then There Were None").
I'm not wholly convinced by Wikileaks arguments for transparent government by leaks. I can understand the need of leaks of cases of torture and illegal killings, of the kind that would prompt action by Amnesty International, where there has been a serious breakdown of the rule of law - although one of the problem with Wikileaks is its selectivity - despite the mass of information, it comes from one or two sources, and we don't always know if cases of torture were concealed and deliberately ignored, or whether severe disciplinary actions took place.
Also other parts of the leaks - I was reading a cable about a chat with Van Rompey over Copenhagen, are more to do with expressions of opinion than fact - this is gossip, rather than cutting edge material, and sometimes may have been expressed more freely than would have been the case had it been public. But is that any more than the way in which we may express ourselves in private, where we may use, on occasion, what would be defamatory words against politicians ? Where we may say in private what we could not say in public without being sued? And isn't it because that can function as a form of shorthand between friends, who pick up on what is also not said, and don't need nuances? Where they "fill in the gaps" and don't misinterpret?
What has happened with Wikileaks is that a private mode of discourse has been opened to a wider world, but without being interpreted as such, or due weight given to the lack of nuance and shorthand, and this can be very misleading. Semioticists, please note!
Anyhow, in 1987, Peter Wright published "Spycatcher" which caused a furore with the British Government, and raised all kinds of issues with free speech. The book was banned in the UK, but copies were available in Scotland - and, of course, in Jersey - for tourists and locals alike. Here is my comment on the situation:
A Matter of Principle?
Contributed by Una N Owen
The furore generated in these pages by the publication of Spycatcher seems to be concerned with the following argument: it is wrong for someone to take an oath to keep secrets, and later to break it; conversely, it is right and proper for the British Government to seek to stop Mr Wright publishing, as a matter of principle, and example to others.
This seems, at first sight, to be a fairly good argument. However, there are several factors not mentioned which should be also be considered, and show that the situation is more complicated than it appears.
First, the British Government seems to argue that the breaking of an official oath is wrong; yet in an Australian Court, Robert Armstrong, the Cabinet Secretary, managed to mislead the Court by bending the truth, or as he himself so quaintly phrased it - "being economical with the truth". This was despite the fact that he was under oath to tell the truth. Does "principle" work only one way?
The Government has also argued that details about the business of spying should be kept in secret. However, the Government is quite happy to leak on an almost official basis to an author like Chapman Pincher; as the Australian Judge pointed out, a sizeable proportion of the ground covered by Spycatcher has already seen publication with the approval of the Government!
But quite apart from the matter of principle, the question I sought to consider was whether or not the
British Government should seek to restrict the dissemination of the book in England, when it had already failed to stop publication in the rest of the world. This I regarded, and still regard, as an infringement of free speech.. Now to the British Government, obsessed as they seem to be with secrecy, such a matter as free speech is often treated as frivolous and contemptible.
However, I would ask those who are dismissive of free speech to consider the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press. This principle was considered sufficiently important to lead to a change in the Constitution, and the Americans still think it most important. Moreover, the absence of free speech and a free press is a charge frequently levied by Western Governments (including Britain) against the oppressive practice of the Soviet Block. Again, this seems to be applied inconsistently: it is fine for the British Government to demand the right to a free press of the Russians, but wrong for British citizens to ask it of the British Government!
Finally, what of the accusation that Mr Wright is lacking in principle. Part of his position seems, in my opinion, to be the modest one of wanting the truth to be found about whether or not Roger Hollis, once Head of MI5, was a Spy. Mr Wright argues that the truth has been evaded in a convenient cover up. As he comments, in 1981, Mrs Thatcher informed the House of Commons that Lord Trend "had concluded that Hollis was not an agent of the Russian Intelligence Service. He had faith in a man's innocence, as I had faith in his treachery; as another man might have faith in God.. One man's view, as I now realize, is in the end worthless. Only facts will ever clear up the mystery." Is this arrogance, or the plea for a proper investigation rather than what appears to be a Government whitewashing?
Abraham Gorst -
2 hours ago