Select Committee on Public Administration Fifth Report

1  Introduction

1. Recent years have seen the publication of a number of diaries and "instant memoirs" by former ministers, diplomats and special advisers describing their careers, and more are promised. In 2003 Robin Cook published memoirs of his time in Cabinet, and his resignation from Cabinet earlier that year.[2] In 2004 Clare Short, who had resigned as a minister in May 2003, followed his example.[3] In 2004 Derek Scott, who had been economic advisor to the Prime Minister between May 1997 and December 2003, published Off Whitehall which caused intense interest at the time, and was trailed as "the book that the Cabinet Office tried to suppress".[4] In autumn 2005 two more former officials published tales from their time working in the Blair administration: special adviser Lance Price's A Spin Doctor's Diary: Inside Number 10 with New Labour and Sir Christopher Meyer's DC Confidential: The controversial memoirs of Britain's Ambassador to the US at the time of 9/11 and the Iraq war.[5] Former British Ambassador to the United Nations Sir Jeremy Greenstock's The Cost of War, due for publication in autumn 2005, has not yet appeared, and Craig Murray, former Ambassador to Uzbekistan, has published a memoir, Murder in Samarkand.[6]

2. The controversy surrounding the publication of some of these books suggested that it would be timely to review the current arrangements in this area. It soon became clear that important issues needed to be explored:

  • the principles which should govern the publication of memoirs and diaries by politicians, public servants and former advisers;
  • the extent to which common principles could or should apply to these different groups;
  • the effectiveness of the current system for clearing such works.

Our inquiry revealed that at present, guidance on the publication of memoirs is weak, processes for clearance are ill-defined, and there have been no effective legal sanctions against those who publish without agreement.

3. We have taken evidence from those who have published their memoirs and from those who have so far refrained, whether former politicians or public servants. We have heard from the current and former Cabinet Secretaries, and from journalists, academics and commentators. We also have explored the issues briefly with witnesses in some of our other inquiries. We are very grateful to all those who gave evidence and to Professor Patrick Birkinshaw of Hull University, our specialist adviser.

Recent publications

4. It is interesting that Clare Short and Robin Cook, notable Cabinet dissidents, obeyed the established rules for clearing their memoirs and their texts appear to have been published with little difficulty.[7] Recently it has been the memoirs of those who were not politicians that have caused the greatest controversy.

5. When Lance Price submitted the text of his diary to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Andrew, now Lord, Turnbull, the initial response from Sir Andrew was that "he found the whole premise of a book of this kind completely unacceptable".[8] At this point, Mr Price's publishers sought legal advice and he made changes to his text on the basis of this advice.[9] Once the changes had been made "the Cabinet Office indicated for the first time a willingness to discuss the contents of the proposed book and to consult with a view to proposing changes where necessary".[10] Further changes were negotiated. But then the Daily Mail, which had bought the serialisation rights, published both the edited and unedited text side by side. Mr Price told us that he was unaware of the newspaper's intention to do this, and that he had not given them a copy of the unedited text.[11] There is thus no evidence on the source of the leaked passages, but they clearly considerably increased the saleability of the serialisation. In 1991 The Sunday Times had similarly used the differences between original proofs and the version approved by the Cabinet Office as the basis for the story: 'Downing Street censors Bernard Ingham memoirs'.[12] Derek Scott commented in Off Whitehall that the Cabinet Office's attempts to censor him, and the Treasury's criticisms of him, turned the book from "a work on the politics and economics of Europe into a publicist's gift".[13]

6. In 2004 Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who had been ambassador to the United Nations during the run up to the Iraq War and who had recently retired as Special Representative to Iraq, notified the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) that he intended to publish a book on his experiences. As he drafted the book, in accordance with the rules, he submitted drafts to the FCO, and officials suggested changes. However, in July 2005, Sir Jeremy was called in to see the then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, who made it clear that, in his view, the basic premise for such a book was objectionable, even though Sir Jeremy told us:

    I was a bit puzzled he was saying it without having looked at my text, partly I think because what I was writing was, in my view, in net terms helpful to the Government's case on Iraq rather than the opposite.[14]

Sir Jeremy submitted further drafts for clearance, until October 2005, but ultimately decided to postpone publication indefinitely.

7. While negotiations with Mr Price and Sir Jeremy continued, the FCO became aware, from an advertisement on Amazon in April 2005, that the recent former ambassador to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, proposed to publish a memoir. The FCO tried, with growing desperation, to persuade Sir Christopher to submit his manuscript for vetting in the normal way. A series of increasingly acerbic exchanges were unsuccessful in this, even though the Diplomatic Service Regulations clearly state that clearance should be sought before a manuscript is sent to a publisher.[15] Ultimately, Howell James, Permanent Secretary, Government Communications, used his influence with Sir Christopher, whom he knew, to get the book sent to the Cabinet Office. The manuscript was finally submitted on 7 October; less than five weeks before the proposed publication date of 10 November. Given the brush with Mr Price's lawyers, and the embarrassment that the juxtaposition of edited and unedited extracts had caused, and with publication pending, it is perhaps unsurprising that no changes to the text were requested, and no process of negotiation was entered into. The new Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, wrote to Sir Christopher's publisher that "the Government has no comments to make on the proposed book. However, I have to admit to being disappointed that a former diplomat should disclose confidences gained as a result of his employment".[16] Since the publication of DC Confidential the Government has been vocal in its criticism of Sir Christopher's publication, and has said that he betrayed trust.[17] Many distinguished former civil servants and diplomats have agreed with this assessment. It is certainly true that Sir Christopher's disobliging remarks about ministers contrast sharply with the limited amount of comment ministers have traditionally been allowed to make about civil servants.

8. Finally, even though the FCO refused clearance for Mr Murray's memoir, the work has now been serialised in the Daily Mail and published.[18] The Government did not take legal action to stop publication but have informed us that they will be looking closely at the text to see whether it does give any grounds for legal proceedings.

9. There have been widely differing assessments of the significance of current developments. Some of our witnesses reminded us that we had been here before, that both politicians and civil servants had published memoirs in the past and, on occasion, such memoirs had not been approved, or had aroused controversy.[19] For example, Lord Wilson of Dinton, a former Cabinet Secretary, reminded us that Sir Bernard Ingham, former Chief Press Secretary in Number 10, had published his memoirs almost immediately after leaving the service of government.[20] On the other hand, Professor Peter Hennessy of Queen Mary, University of London and Lord Owen, former Foreign Secretary, claimed that as trust between politicians and civil servants had been eroded, so those in the permanent service of the state have become readier to publish their side of the story.[21]

10. Whichever view is right, it is timely to look at these issues again. The rules governing publication of memoirs have been examined several times in the past, but the context in which such books appear has greatly changed since the work of Lord Radcliffe's committee in 1976 (following the publication of the Crossman diaries) and Lord Wakeham's committee in 1993 (following the publication of the Lawson memoirs). The Freedom of Information Act 2000 has given greater access to government information. The Hutton and Butler inquiries, which reported in January and July of 2004 respectively, published vast amounts of information about the way the Government conducts its business.[22] The Prime Minister holds monthly press conferences. This greater access to information has been matched by a new electronic information age where live news is available 24 hours a day, vast quantities of unregulated information is available on the internet, and anyone can be their own publisher.

11. We decided therefore to extend our examination of the current controversies into the first full review of the rules and procedures governing the publication of political memoirs for thirty years, and the only such review to be conducted in public.

12. Some of the issues raised in our evidence will be discussed in the concurrent inquiries we have been conducting into the relationship between politicians and civil servants and the regulation of the ethical conduct of government. In this report, we consider:

  • the balance between a public interest in openness and a public interest in preserving free and frank discussion within government;
  • the processes in place to ensure that memoirs and diaries, when published, are sensitive to this balance of interests; and
  • the way in which such processes could be enforced.

2   Robin Cook, The Point of Departure (London, Simon & Schuster), 2003. Back

3   Clare Short, An Honourable Deception? New Labour, Iraq, and the Misuse of Power (London, Free Press), 2004. Back

4   Derek Scott, Off Whitehall (New York, Ibtauris), 2004; see Back

5   Lance Price, The Spin Doctor's Diary: Inside Number 10 with New Labour (London, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd), 2005; Sir Christopher Meyer, DC Confidential: The controversial memoirs of Britain's Ambassador to the UK at the time of 9/11 and the Iraq war (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson), 2005. Back

6   Craig Murray, Murder in Samarkand (London, Mainstream Publishing), 2006. Back

7   Q 72 Back

8   Ev 85 Back

9   Q 222 Back

10   Ev 85 Back

11   Q 235 Back

12   'Downing Street censors Bernard Ingham memoirs', The Sunday Times, 12 May 1991. Back

13   Derek Scott, Off Whitehall (New York, Ibtauris), 2004, p vii. Back

14   Q 296 Back

15   The correspondence has been placed in the House of Commons Library. Back

16   Letter from Sir Gus O'Donnell to Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 4 November 2005. Back

17   HC Deb, 28 November 2005, col 165W  Back

18   'Straw did nothing to stop torture says ex-diplomat', The Mail on Sunday, 21 May 2006. Back

19   Q 5, Ev 104 Back

20   Q 5, Ev 87 Back

21   Q 1 Back

22   Lord Hutton, Report of the Inquiry into the Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Dr David Kelly C.M.G., HC 247, 28 January 2004; Lord Butler, Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction: Report of a Committee of Privy Counsellors, HC 898, 14 July 2004. Back

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Prepared 25 July 2006