05 August 2008
PASC: FORMER MANDARINS SHOULD BE BOUND BUT NOT GAGGED BY RULES ON PUBLICATIONS AND INTERVIEWS
Link to Report
Government may be restricting free speech with toughened up rules on publications and interviews by former civil servants and diplomats, warns the Commons Public Administration Select Committee in a report published today. Diplomats are now required to commit on entering the Civil Service that they will never publicly comment on their work experiences after they leave the service, except with prior approval from Whitehall. The Committee says that the rules are “unduly restrictive” and would “substantially diminish informed discussion of major world events”.
Former diplomats have been critical of the changes made by the Foreign Office. Committee Chairman Tony Wright MP suggested that the changes to the rules were probably well-intended but ill-conceived, saying:
“The Foreign Office was clearly disturbed that former ambassadors like Christopher Meyer and Craig Murray were able to publish highly critical memoirs while paying only lip service to the rules. But in trying to stop that happening again, they have changed the rules in a way that has - at least on paper - serious unintended consequences. This looks like a case of ‘back to the drawing board’.”
The Committee notes that if rules were to be applied literally, they would “prevent any live TV or radio commentary from former diplomats for the rest of their lives”. The report cites the contribution of former diplomats to public understanding of events in Pakistan, Kenya and Zimbabwe as evidence of the public interest in allowing them to speak freely.
PASC’s report also highlights concerns that the Government has taken on the final say on what information can be published in political memoirs. Previously, this was negotiated between the author and the Government, but the Committee suggests that in an understandable attempt to clamp down on damaging revelations, the Government has gone too far in limiting authors’ freedoms - in particular, by denying them any right of appeal. The Committee calls for disagreements to be arbitrated by the Information Commissioner.
Dr Wright was critical of the lack of an appeals mechanism:
“Freedom of information means that it is not up to the Government to decide what information is made public, and what stays private. Yet there seem to be different rules for memoirs. If I were a minister or a civil servant writing my memoirs, I would think it was reasonable for government to suggest changes I should make for public interest reasons, but not for it to censor me. The independent Information Commissioner is used to deciding on the public interest - it should be his job to rule on what authors can and cannot write.”
Committee Membership: Tony Wright (Chairman) (Lab) (Cannock Chase), Mr David Burrowes (Con) (Enfield, Southgate), Paul Flynn (Lab) (Newport West), David Heyes (Lab) (Ashton under Lyne), Kelvin Hopkins (Lab) (Luton North), Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Con) (Bridgewater), Julie Morgan (Lab) (Cardiff North), Mr Gordon Prentice (Lab) (Pendle), Paul Rowen (Lib Dem) (Rochdale), Charles Walker (Con) (Broxbourne), Jenny Willott (Lib Dem) (Cardiff Central)
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