Select Committee on Public Administration Written Evidence

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 in office.

  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 principle—as set out by Lord Radcliffe—is 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 decades—both 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 advisers—Bernard 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 assume—regardless of memoirs or diaries—that 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 is published.

  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 policy—and 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 view—reaffirmed by Lords Wilson and Turnbull—seems right: the main sanction is that people who break the rules should be condemned for breaching acceptable norms of mutual trust. The loss of reputation—and the cold shouldering by former colleagues now being suffered by Sir Christopher Meyer—are 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.

January 2006

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