Letter from Alastair Campbell to the Clerk
of the Committee
Thank you for your letter dated 12 January,
asking me to explain why I do not intend to publish my diaries,
or any books relying upon them, whilst the Prime Minister remains
I do intend to publish a series of books about
my experiences in politics at some time, but I would consider
it wrong to publish in a manner, or at a time, detrimental to
the interests of the Government or the Party I served. With our
media and politics as they are, I am in little doubt that publication
would be used to try to damage the Government, the Labour Party,
the Prime Minister and others. For that reason alone, I have decided
against early publication.
I know that the committee has looked in detail
at specific recent publications. It is clearly the case that political
events are under greater media scrutiny than ever before. Events
as they happen are now subject to far more coverage, and far more
is revealed to the public, than was the case even a few years
ago. This is an inevitable consequence of a more voracious 24
hour media and the internet, which alongside other political and
cultural change have led to greater openness including Freedom
of Information, and higher expectations of public disclosure.
All that being said, whatever the rules that
are in place concerning the publication of political memoirs,
ultimately it will remain the responsibility of the individual
to handle such issues sensibly.
22 January 2006
Memorandum by Peter Riddell, Chief Political
Commentator, The Times
The Radcliffe rules on the publication of political
memoirs had been comprehensively breached well before the publication
of "DC Confidential", or the Lance Price diaries. In
many ways, the outcry over Sir Christopher Meyer's book has muddled,
rather than clarified, the problem.
If the core principleas set out by Lord
Radcliffeis that memoirs should not reveal national security,
international relations, confidence between ministers and confidential
advice from officials, then it has been breached several times
in the past two decadesboth by politicians and civil servants.
The Alan Clark diaries named several civil servants, including
his fantasies about one of his female private secretaries. These
were published only just over a year after he ceased being a minister.
Geoffrey Robinson also named civil servants in his memoirs, less
than two years after he resigned. Both could be dismissed as unimportant
since they were peripheral figures, never in the Cabinet, or ever
likely to be there. But they breached the Radcliffe principles.
On a lesser, and more innocuous level, Nigel Lawson named some
Treasury civil servants in his memoirs, despite pleas from the
Cabinet Secretary (Lord Butler of Brockwell) to remove the names.
On the other side, there have been several cases
of officials commenting on private discussions and on ministers,
from the Alanbrooke diaries onwards (appearing in a bowdlerised
form within a dozen years of the end of the Second World War and
including highly critical comments about Sir Winston Churchill).
An earlier British Ambassador to Washington, Sir Nicholas Henderson,
published diaries which revealed a full account of the Falklands
war and about his meetings with ministers. These came out within
12 years of his time in Washington, less than the 15 year embargo
set out in the Radcliffe rules. At the time of publication in
1994, Sir Nicholas said he had decided to go ahead after earlier
being asked not to publish because "now everybody seems to
be publishing memoirs. Many ministers and civil servants have
also disregarded the rules".
That is apart from the increasing number of
memoirs/diaries by special advisersBernard Donoughue, who
names several senior civil servants, but deliberately waited 30
years; Sarah Hogg and Jonathan Hill (published during the Major
premiership, though generally supportive); and in the Blair years,
Derek Scott, Lance Price and Peter Hyman.
How is Sir Christopher Meyer's book worse than
these cases? His offence lay in making personally disparaging
remarks about serving ministers and revealing some mildly embarrassing
anecdotes about Tony Blair and other ministers while they are
still serving in office. This was a serious mistake, and did breach
trust. Yet was the real outcry because Tony Blair and Jack Straw
are still in office? But this section only accounts for five or
six pages of the book. If these were omitted, would the book have
provoked comment and objections? Obviously much less. But, in
theory, his discussion of the run-up to the Iraq war breaches
the Radcliffe guidelines. However, in practice, as Sir Christopher
has acknowledged, there was nothing new in what he wrote about
Iraq. Virtually all has appeared either in television programmes
or in other books ( for some of which he was an acknowledged source,
including my own Hug Them Close). There have been far greater
revelations in books published in the USA, including two by Bob
Woodward, which had the assistance of President Bush and other
members of the administration. Otherwise, the Meyer book is a
racy, highly personal account of life as an Ambassador, which
you can take or leave according to taste, but which includes some
astute observations about the British role in the USA.
How much damage has been done? Or, rather, damage
to what and whom? I have seen no evidence of any damage to transatlantic
relations, and certainly not to national security. It is more
a question of breach of confidence and political embarrassment,
or good taste perhaps. Should ministers feel able to be candid
in front of their officials and Ambassadors? Yes. Equally, civil
servants should feel able to be open and candid when advising
ministers rather than worried that their opinions will appear
in memoirs while they are still serving in Whitehall, probably
under a government of another party. As Geoff Mulgan has suggested,
good government may be weakened by the fear among special advisers,
and civil servants, that someone else in the room is keeping a
diary. But in the more open political culture at present, it is
unwise to assumeregardless of memoirs or diariesthat
anything will remain secret for long. It is certainly in the public
interest for some policy discussions to held in private, and on
the assumption that they will remain private. A wider range of
options can then be aired. There is the danger that senior ministers
will rely more on a small coterie of advisers. But that does not
mean that much damage will necessarily be done if such advice
Can anything be done? Clearly, the letter of
the Radcliffe rules, about a 15 year bar on memoirs, is dead.
And the words of the Civil Service Code about civil servants observing
"their duties of confidentiality after leaving Crown employment"
are not precise enough. Is it just memoirs? How about TV interviews
or newspaper articles? After all, retired civil servants often
contribute to public debate on policyand they are listened
to precisely because of this past experience and insider contacts.
In order to be credible, the Radcliffe rules
need to be updated and made more specific. Various procedural
improvements on ensuring earlier sight of drafts should also be
set out. Above all, the rules need to be applied to ex-ministers
and former special advisers as well as retired civil servants.
Of course, politicians are in a different position from civil
servants in terms of public accountability, but that does not
mean they should be free to discuss confidential advice, or to
identify civil servants who cannot answer back. For civil servants,
and particularly special advisers, the ban on revealing confidential
discussions could be enforced by a specific clause on the Civil
Service Code, or in contracts, on the Crown Copyright principle
floated by Sir Gus O'Donnell.
More generally, however, the original Radcliffe
viewreaffirmed by Lords Wilson and Turnbullseems
right: the main sanction is that people who break the rules should
be condemned for breaching acceptable norms of mutual trust. The
loss of reputationand the cold shouldering by former colleagues
now being suffered by Sir Christopher Meyerare perhaps
the most effective sanction. But that will only work if it is
enforced against politicians as well as civil servants.
Overall, despite all the huffing and puffing
about DC Confidential, much of the row is overdone. Sir Christopher
was wrong to breach confidence in five or six pages. But he is
neither the first nor is likely to be the last. His book is an
occasional exception to the general keeping of confidences by
retired civil servants. His book has been deplored. The rules
need to be clarified and made more credible. There are many more
important issues for the committee to consider.