Saturday, 29 November 2008

Remember Sarah Tisdall?

Isn't it nice to hear the Tories defend the leaking of information and the use of that information to hold the Government to account. To listen to David Cameron it sounds as if anything short of the 'nuclear codes' is fair game. So unlike our own dear Tory leader in Sefton. How times have changed.

In Britain the tradition of leaking ‘secret documents’ in the public interest is an old and in many cases an honourable one. Churchill in his wilderness years had a Foreign Office mole who fed him all sorts much to the intense anger of the Conservative Government of Halifax and Chamberlain. Gordon Brown had a fun time with the fag end of the last Tory administration with leaked documents.

I remember a junior civil servant, Sarah Tisdale who embarrassed the Conservative Government (and Hestletine in particular) in 1983 by leaking documents. It was held in court the the information she leaked did not compromise national security but the Guardian was forced to release the documents and to this day the then editor Peter Preston says he feels guilty about the incident

The Tories pursued this young women and she got a six month jail sentence not because she leaked sensitive documents but because 'if she was capable of leaking those documents what else might she leak?'! Damian Green should ponder on these things. One of the Tory Law officers at the time was Sir Ian Percival MP for Southport

The Young Liberals went on to elect her as an honorary Vice President which no doubt soften the blow of being sacked, prosecuted and imprisoned under the Official Secrets Act. If my memory serves me correctly I was the returning officer that year.

For many years members had subverted the processes by electing surreal candidates. I well remember the success that Aileen Simpkin’s Landlady’s cat enjoyed over a number of years-she went on to be a senior civil servant (Aileen, not the cat). So it was agreed that we would tighten up the rules about nominating Vice Presidents and I had to tell the conference that nominations would only be accepted for candidates that were ‘real human and alive’ Regrettably that did not solve the problem as I was called to rule whether the ‘wart on Clement Freud’s left buttock’ qualified. It was decided that it did not-despite the protestation of one lass who claimed to be an eye witness.

All this happened in the days before the Freedom of Information Act when government’s routinely covered up things just because they were embarrassing. Sadly the version of Freedom of Information enacted by New Labour was predictably pusillanimous and the practice of getting around the act is alive and well in local and central government. Clement Freud did energetically promote a far superior version of the Act as a Private Member’s Bill, sadly it failed.

There was another famous leak about the same time -Clive Ponting. He leaked stuff about the sinking of the Belgrano in the Falklands War much to Thatcher's fury. Amazing -despite the firm direction of the Judge- the jury acquitted him. He expected to go to goal instead he wrote a book and became a minor celebrity. I remember attending some reception or other at the time when he was the guest. Dr Owen was also there (this was the time of the Alliance). What ever words came out of his mouth it seemed to me his body language shouted louder that he was most uncomfortable-confirmation if ever we needed it that he was an unreliable partner.

Yesterday, it is reported that, nine anti terrorist police officers raided the home and offices of Damian Green the Tory Immigration spokesman. I hold no brief for the immigration policy adopted by Green. He clearly has a mole of his own in the civil service who has alerted him to much embarrassing ammunition. None of it threats national security.

Nick Clegg deals with the wider issues in an article this Sunday. Let us hope that Green and his mole are dealt with better than they dealt with the young clerk Sarah Tidsdall when they were in power.