Select Committee on Public Administration Written Evidence

Memorandum by Craig Murray

  I write to you as a former Civil Servant who has submitted his memoirs, "Murder in Samarkand", for approval to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and who has been refused that approval. I am nonetheless determined to go ahead and get the book published. The FCO have warned that they will take legal action if I do. I believe that places me in a category of person of particular interest to your Committee's current enquiry.

  I was British Ambassador to Uzbekistan from August 2002 to September 2004. For over six years I was a member of the Senior Civil Service, (or its Diplomatic Service equivalent). I had a career of over 20 years in the Diplomatic Service.

  I believe it is important that the committee consider my category of case, which is very different to that of other former Ambassadors such as Jeremy Greenstock and Christopher Meyer. They left after long and distinguished careers drew to a natural close. They then took jobs in organisations which are close to, or related to, government.

  By contrast I left the FCO on (very) early retirement after a long and well publicised dispute with my employer. This had drastic effects on my health. I am currently without work at 47, I believe in large part as a result of the damage to my reputation caused by false accusations brought against me by the FCO. At the moment my future looks bleak.

  It is the contention of my book that I was both mistreated and traduced by the FCO as the result of an internal policy dispute over our attitude to the government of President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, and over cooperation with his security services allegedly in pursuit of the War on Terror. It is a fact that I faced a lengthy investigation into 18 allegations made against me, which were leaked in detail to the media. It is also a fact that I was formally cleared on all 18 charges.

  My name was cleared, despite the standard of proof being balance of probability, not beyond reasonable doubt. I am sure many of your committee will understand that makes a major difference. It also lends weight to the question of how such a huge raft of charges, none of them probable, could come about. That is much of the story of my book. I was, incidentally, found guilty of a nineteenth charge, that of talking about the charges.

  The FCO would deny that I was in any way mistreated. They are perfectly entitled to argue that. But do the Select Committee really believe that the government should be able to use an all-enveloping definition of Crown Copyright to prevent me from setting out my side of the story? It does not matter if you side with me or the FCO on what happened. You do not have to support me in the dispute, to support my right to freedom of speech.

  I ask the committee whether, in this context of what might be termed an employment dispute, an employer which happens to be a government department should be able to stop by diktat an aggrieved employee, who lost his job, from publishing his account of events?

  I would argue that in these circumstances the laws of defamation and libel, the Official Secrets Act, the Data Protection Act and the Freedom of Information Act provide proper and secure boundaries of law within which an employee ought to have the right to air his grievance. For the employer to simply ban the book by refusal to clear it, and the threat of arguing in court that the area of dispute is subject to Crown Copyright, cannot be fair. It is an unjustified limitation of freedom of speech.

  My publisher has received formal legal advice that, even if a document has been obtained under the Freedom of Information Act or the Data Protection Act, the government may still prevent its publication by exercising Crown Copyright. If upheld, this would mean that a newspaper, which obtained a document under the Freedom of Information Act, could nonetheless be arbitrarily prevented from publishing it.

  That seems to me to obviate much of the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act. I would request the Committee to consider this problem and resist the temptation to endorse the government's musings about making more vigorous use of Crown Copyright. I would further suggest that the Committee recommend that the Government should state that, as a matter of policy, it will not use Crown Copyright to suppress publication of material obtained under the Freedom of Information Act or Data Protection Act.

  Allow me apply this to my own case. I received a large number of documents pursuant to a formal application under the Data Protection Act. The documents consist largely of minutes about the handling of the disciplinary procedure against me. In particular they give irrefutable evidence of the detailed personal involvement of the Secretary of State Jack Straw, both in holding meetings and in writing minutes, in the setting up and detailed conduct of disciplinary charges against me. This evidence is included in the text of my book. Mr Straw has repeatedly denied he had any connection with the action taken against me.

  One purpose of the DPA is to enable the citizen to get at the truth of what government is doing in relation to them personally. Does the Committee believe I should be prevented from publishing those minutes about me, obtained legitimately under the DPA, because of Crown Copyright? I do not expect the Committee necessarily to take a view on the individual case. I point out what I believe to be the unfair hazard for freedom of speech of an aggressive use of Crown Copyright.

  I have been informed by senior FCO officials that in my case the submission on whether to give permission to publish was put to Mr Straw. That seems to me to open questions on whether politicians should be permitted to ban information about their own conduct. The committee may consider such decisions might be better taken by an independent body enforcing agreed rules.

  Let me be quite plain about the current situation. The FCO has stated that it will not "Ban" the book, but that if it is published it will sue under Crown Copyright. That is an effective deterrent to any publisher, whose purpose is to run a business publishing books, not to conduct extremely expensive litigation. So in fact their aggressive attitude does amount to a ban.

  I should also like the Committee to consider the ability of Government departments to use process to frustrate an author. In my case I spent hundreds of hours over some eight months in detailed discussion with the FCO on the text of my book, including meetings, letters, emails and numerous long phone calls. I made scores of textual amendments, some of them very major, to try to meet their concerns. Only at the end of this process did they turn round and say that they opposed in principle the entire publication of the book.

  After reviewing this large raft of correspondence between the FCO and I, the publisher's lawyers, most distinguished in this field, commented:

    I agree with the author when he accuses the FCO of delaying tactics by playing him along, implying certain consents and then objecting in principle to the publication of the book. However, there is nothing particularly unusual in this . . . Government departments are capricious and that is their nature.

  Perhaps the Committee might consider whether we ought to have to resign ourselves to capricious behaviour in this regard. From my long knowledge of FCO process, my expectation is that I was negotiating with civil servants who were diligently applying rules, before the book was finally submitted to a politician who simply wanted it banned.

  I would conclude that, if the government or an individual wishes to take legal action against me over my book over alleged libel or a breach of the Official Secrets Act, that is a perfectly legitimate course of action and to be decided in court. But I do not view the aggressive use of Crown Copyright or confidentiality, in effect to block publication, to be legitimate in the case outlined above.

  Book banning is in itself pernicious and should always be specifically justified. Where there are two parties to a dispute, for one party to use an arbitrary authority to suppress a book about the dispute by the other party, leaves a nasty smell.

  I am at the disposal of the Committee if I might be of any assistance.

5 March 2006

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