Political Promise

Ju Shardlow On… Secrets and Lies

In Ju Shardlow on July 4, 2010 at 8:00 am

One of my favourite laws from the previous government was the little-heralded change to the Freedom of Information act. In cutting down the waiting period for access to public documents to 20 years, the Brown administration was able to expose some delicious Thatcherisms. Hacks previously had to wait 30 years to get their hands on private government memos and reports. The new coalition government is currently deciding when the legislation will come into effect.

I’m probably alone in celebrating the impending enaction of this law. There is of course going to be thousands of pages of largely fluff correspondence between Ministers, and someone is going to have to sort through this. The National Archives is likely to become an even more depressing place to work. However, the level of scrutiny that we can put the government under will be astounding. Imagine being able, in two decades time when Cleg and Cameron are still possibly in the public eye, to call them up on those negotiations in May. It might not make a difference in 30.

You’re probably thinking “Yeah, whats so interesting about official records? They’re probably duller than William Hague’s 17th birthday bonanza.” Well yes, there is likely to be alot of toning-down of records from now on. More risquee messages between ministers will be written on post-its, napkins, and the back of IDS’ head when he’s sleeping on the bench.The fear that some wry comment will end up in the press in 20 years is too great to officially record everything.

Now, the idea of the government being terrified of the press always excites me. It might actually be what drives me to be a journalist. The committee review of secrecy rules is even being chaired by Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre.

Imagine being on that panel. I’d rather breed with a tree-frog.

The reason traditionally given for all this secrecy is that government could not function without it. Ministers and officials must be free to discuss issues frankly and kick around ideas without them being splashed across the newspapers and written up as “splits” or “gaffes”. But we love gaffes. It’s what sustains public traust in the Government. If politicians were completely infallible, Westminster would be as detached from public life as Darling’s eyebrows are from any other living thing on this planet. Sometimes it’s good to know a few documents were lost on a train, or that a disk was wiped. Its how John Prescott sustained his Parliamentary career all through the 90’s and 00’s. We love a comedian. We love an underdog. We love a loser. Look what happened to Nick Cleggs credibility after those post-debate memos were found in the back of a cab (“Don’t act wierd like PM”).

Sure, we don’t want to know everything about our politicians- like what colour pants they wear or whether they really prefer chocolate hobnobs-that stuff is just unnecessary. It fosters the “I could do their job for them” view. There does need to be a distance between Politicians and the people. Thats the whole point of electing someone.Yet maintaining the knowledge that we have access to what Ministers write to each other is totally appropriate in this age of accountability. The Telegraph would be proud.

We will have greater powers to monitor what kind of people our politicians are, without extending to highly-sensitive material that could compromise national safety.

So who are the winners here? Researchers, boffins, transparency-campaigners, The National Archives? Well it’s us…in 20 years time.

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