Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320 - 339)



  Q320  Julia Goldsworthy: A lot of the focus this morning has been on the decision whether or not to publish but you have made public statements about your time at the UN and the situation in Iraq since then, and I wondered what you saw the difference as being and if you had been contacted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office subsequent or prior to that?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: I have sometimes wondered whether the Foreign Office has seen any difference. Again, I did not jump out of one state into another, there is a flow of events, you evolve in these things. An ambassador only has limited public exposure in our times but sometimes an event jumps up and is talked about the whole time or you get into a crisis, you are asked by the government as part of your public duties to give public explanations and you go on giving them. I ended up after my period in the United Nations and then in Baghdad with a higher public exposure than is usual, therefore I got lots of requests from the media to go on commenting on what was happening, and regularly, as the Foreign Office will confirm, I would ring up the press department and ask what the line was on that day. The person running the Iraq desk in the press office happened to have been my private secretary in Baghdad so we had an easy and natural relationship, so I was aware of the Government line. I did not clear every request to go on radio or television with the Foreign Office. At no time, not once, did anybody contact me and say either, "You should have said something differently" or "You should have consulted us" or "Would you stop talking in public". So out of that flow, I assumed what I was saying was regarded by the Foreign Office as within the norm, within the rules, within what was acceptable for my department.

  Q321  Julia Goldsworthy: Do you feel what you had written in your book goes beyond that and that is why there was a perceived problem, or is there almost a hang-up with the way that memoirs are published?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: In submitting my text to the Foreign Office I was submitting the draft text, a draft which was for discussion and for changing if both sides agreed there should changes. So I was not plonking a text down and saying, "I am going to publish this but I am giving you a chance to change anything", I wanted to judge what could be said without a great fuss about breaking confidences, so that the story in the book, the text in the book, could be taken at its own value and not be distorted in its reception publicly by a great fuss over revelations or the breaking of confidences.

  Q322  Mr Prentice: Did you self-censor when you were writing the book? Were there things you wanted to say, perhaps about individuals, but drew back because it would not have been appropriate?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: Oh heavens yes! Enormously. You are self-censoring all the time—I am a diplomat, after all.

  Q323  Mr Prentice: So there is nothing in the book that would cause politicians any embarrassment?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: On the whole, not. There may have been one or two phrases which imply that I thought there might have been a different answer at some point, but it is not embarrassing in the sense I am criticising or I am saying something which is completely unacceptable. It is up to other people to have their own idea of whether they are going to be embarrassed.

  Q324  Mr Prentice: Christopher Meyer took a lot of flak because he, to give an example, referred to Jack Straw as someone to be more liked than admired, and the late Robin Cook someone to be admired rather than liked, and his book is peppered with those kinds of observations. Do you think that politicians are fair game in that way?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: I did not seek to make value judgments of that kind in my text.

  Q325  Mr Prentice: Okay. Simon Jenkins compared the Meyer book and your book in a piece he wrote in the Sunday Times on 27 November and he talked about Meyer's book revealing "copious embassy confidences" and so on, but he says, "Greenstock's book was a different matter", and Simon Jenkins went on to say, "It is a high-minded case history of diplomacy in action, devoid of Meyer's dinner table gossip, but its account of dealings between British and American policymakers, notably during Paul Bremer's disastrous rule in Baghdad, drew blood." I suppose the thing that that raises is whether your book would damage or undermine the relationship between this country and the Americans.

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: I think not. Simon Jenkins was writing without having read the text of my book. I think he was using a reference to my book more to comment on the Meyer book than to say anything which might or might not be true about mine because he does not know my book. Let me answer your question about Anglo-American relations. On the whole not, but even less so now that Paul Bremer has written his own book, because that says far more   about the tensions within the American administration and the mistakes that the American administration made than I did.

  Q326  Mr Prentice: I have not read the Bremer book but would you challenge the veracity of Bremer's account of what happened in that period?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: No. I have not read the whole book yet, I am just in the middle of it. Bremer is a man of considerable integrity, I would not expect him to be untruthful. I would expect him, like everybody else, to be selective in what he says.

  Q327  Mr Prentice: So your book would not cause embarrassment to politicians, it would not undermine our relations with the United States, why is it then that the Government seemed to be so freaked out about its publication? Was it just, as you said, that Jack Straw had this double-whammy of the Meyer book and your book in the same week? Why block publication?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: I do not fully know because the conversation, the discussion with the Foreign Office, stopped half way through, but let me make a comment. There was a process with the system in the Foreign Office, going up to the Permanent Under-Secretary, which was clearing my book, and proposals were made for changes in the text which up to the end of June on two-thirds of the text were quite light. From the first week in July, which was the week in which I had my conversation with the Foreign Secretary, up to the second week of October, I did not hear a dickey-bird from the Foreign Office. So the process seemed to have started in one way and to have stopped. In the first week of October I got a much larger pile of comments on my book and requests to change passages. By that time of course I had taken the decision with my publishers not to go ahead, which was taken before the middle of July. So I am not sure—I had not gone through this with the Foreign Office or with Mr Straw—I am not sure of the interaction between the system and the Secretary of State.

  Q328  Mr Prentice: And you did not have a separate meeting or any correspondence or discussion with Sir Michael Jay, the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: We exchanged perfectly amicable letters. I wrote in July after my meeting with the Foreign Secretary saying I would still like to complete the process of clearing the text to see where we had come out, and received no answer to that until late in September. I had to remind them I had written. I received an answer saying, "Right, we will complete the process but having sent you further comments it will still be necessary for us to submit to the Secretary of State."

  Q329  Mr Prentice: We had this memorandum submitted to us by Sir Christopher Meyer, who came before us a few weeks ago, and he tells us that the rules are not applied consistently. He tells us, "What is missing is consistency and clarity in their application, and in the definition of the duty of confidentiality." I wonder if you agree with that, that the rules are there, we can read the Radcliffe rules and so on, but they are employed, if that is the right word, in a very haphazard way?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: Obviously I do not know precisely the circumstances of the clearance of Sir Christopher's book, but it appears from what he has said and what the Cabinet Office have said that no changes were suggested. I find that quite surprising. In comparing his experience with mine, particularly in the third area of the three which are set out in Radcliffe and in the 1993 Cabinet Office note, the area of confidential relationships was going to be affected by Christopher's book. I have talked this over with Christopher and we both approached the business of clearance with the intention of hearing what those in the proper position had to say and making changes as necessary. I do not think that I have said so much in my book that damages confidential relationships that it makes his book seem absolutely clean and clear by comparison.

  Q330  Mr Prentice: Christopher Meyer would understand all that. He would say, "What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander" and there is a torrent of memoirs by politicians who have just left the Cabinet or left office recently disclosing all sorts of things, and he takes the view that the same rules should apply between politicians and diplomats and civil servants. In fact he says in this memorandum which I have just been quoting from, "There should be a level playing field for civil servants, special advisers and ministers on leaving government." I wonder if you agree with that? Why should retiring civil servants and diplomats be shackled when politicians can tell all?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: That is a different point from your earlier one, the comparison between what our two books say in the area of confidential relationships. I think the rules should be roughly the same for both. I would only add that in my view elected representatives, elected officials, are more in the public domain in their career and have to some extent a greater right to defend themselves in public.

  Q331  Paul Flynn: You chose the title, The Cost of War and it can be argued those who have paid and are still paying the greatest cost of this war are the families of the 98 servicemen who have died, and part of the process of coming to terms with their grief is searching for knowledge of how their loved one died and discovering whether the war was legitimate or not. Do you not think you owe a duty to those families to publish this book and inform them of the causes of the war, because it has been claimed that you have suggested the war was politically illegitimate. There are families who are not very articulate who are questioning the point of the war and believe their loved ones died in vain. Are they not entitled to have that information? You are probably the only person who can provide it. Do you not think it places a burden on you to publish the truth? You did argue what you had to say was too important to be left until a future date, is that not still true?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: I have not said it is too important to be left. Obviously the world can do without my book. What I was trying to do was make the debate about the decisions which were taken, which have affected so many people, better informed, and the reasons for those decisions more intelligible. Within my idea of the public interest, in having a better informed debate, yes, there is the sentiment—it may not have been my prime reason for writing—that those who have suffered from the decisions taken over Iraq might perhaps have a better understanding of why it happened that way.

  Q332  Paul Flynn: Your motivations come across from what you have said and what you have said today as entirely honourable, you were not seeking to make money out of this book, all the money was going to charity, but I cannot understand why you were dissuaded by a politician who had not read the book, did not know what you had said, speaking entirely in his own self-interests, from publishing the book when there are other issues. Apart from the grieving relatives, there is the interest of politicians, and those who are going to take decisions on possibly the next war which might be politically illegitimate. Do you not have a duty to publish on those grounds?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: I clearly do not have a duty to publish. It is a personal thing in one sense, it is a public thing in another, in that I need to go through the clearance process. I think there is a difficulty for me. I found a difficulty in going ahead when the atmosphere had become so sensationalist and feverish, that on the one hand the media would have found, if and when they had read my book, that there was not so very much there that was sensational or revelatory or critical or headline-making, and they would have been disappointed, because my book is quite a sober record of what happened to some extent behind the scenes. On the other hand, Government or some parts of Government would still have been annoyed with me. So I was on a hiding-to-nothing in between those two considerations in publishing a book ahead of the time which is considered to be the norm. If it has become more difficult for me to affect the public debate on a relevant timing, then what is left for me is to leave something for the historical record, in which case it does not really matter when I publish and I might as well do it at a time which is less controversial.

  Q333  Paul Flynn: Do you not feel there is an obligation as far as decisions which will be taken, possibly in the near future, on similar conflicts?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: I have been talking quite publicly about the Iraq war, the evolution of events in Iraq, and I hope in that way I have helped to inform public debate about what is actually going on. So the book on its own is not necessarily the only contribution I can make.

  Q334  Paul Flynn: If we cannot persuade you to recharge your creative batteries, could you explain to us why you think the war was politically illegitimate?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: I think that is another issue, Chairman, and another subject and I would rather not start a complex discussion on events in Iraq.

  Chairman: It was worth a try, was it not?

  Paul Flynn: Yes.

  Q335  Jenny Willott: You mentioned that you do not think Radcliffe worked with regard to Christopher Meyer's book. What is your understanding of the worst that the Foreign Office could have done to you if you had gone ahead and published without clearance?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: There are two considerations. I do not think I broke the Official Secrets Act so I do not think I would have been prosecutable under the Official Secrets Act, I was quite careful about that. I would have taken advice from the Foreign Office immediately if they felt I had strayed across that particular line. In terms of the judgment by the Foreign Office or by politicians or by anybody else as to whether I had strayed across lines of propriety which had been laid down by Radcliffe and others, I would have assumed that the Foreign Office would have left it at the tenor of public comment that came out. Christopher Meyer I think has had that experience. If he made misjudgments about things he put into his book, they are misjudgments he will have to live with. I do not think you can legislate against the fine print in that area. What is sensible is to make sure with your department that you are avoiding damage to the public interest.

  Q336  Jenny Willott: That leads me to my next question. Radcliffe is based on voluntary principles that everybody is going to abide by the system, do you think it could or should be made compulsory that conditions around the publication of memoirs and diaries and so on would be included in the contracts of civil servants and diplomats?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: No, I do not.

  Q337  Jenny Willott: Both could and should?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: I do not think you can legislate every case in fine detail. Judgments in the end have always got to be made. I think that Radcliffe, or something like it, is an entirely acceptable basis for making specific judgments from general principles. I think there is a case for transparency. Standards rise with competition. If there are more things out there explaining what has gone on then I think people are likely to understand more. We are in an era that is free with information, that has a lot of misleading information floating around, where control of information channels is becoming an art not just in government but elsewhere, where the media I think are less inclined than in previous eras to look for the precise truth. Therefore, transparency from a range of sources about public events of importance to national interest is a good thing. Where mistakes are made, where things seem to get a bit edgy, where there is controversy, let there be controversy. Our system is strong enough fundamentally to take it. They are only minor shocks for a short period. The health of the public interest will be greater if there is transparency and therefore I think there should be good general principles for proper behaviour. If people are judged to have behaved improperly, let that be a fuss for the moment. Let their reputations take it but let us not try and legislate against it.

  Q338  Jenny Willott: Do you think Sir Christopher Meyer got what he deserved for publishing the book he published?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: He got many things and he got a great deal of support. He published a lot of it in his book and he said a lot of interesting things about what it is like to be the American ambassador, which are usefully revealing. He will have to bear the cost of his misjudgments which I think he is gladly doing.

  Q339  Chairman: He runs the Press Complaints Commission; you run the Ditchley Foundation. Is it not the truth that had you been cold-shouldered by Whitehall you would have been dead in the water as the director of such an organisation?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: As you put the question, of course, but I do not think I strayed so far into difficult territory that I was risking my responsibilities as director of the Ditchley Foundation.

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