18.08.2021 Author: Seth Ferris

The UK: Official Secrets Are Not Worth The Lies They Are Written On


Do you know how pigs live in your local government district? You deserve a prize if you do.

But if you are in the UK, and you tell anybody how many there are, you can be prosecuted for breaching the Official Secrets Act. The reasoning behind this is that an enemy of the UK could use this information to attack the country, by disrupting food supplies and harming the population. Boris Johnson is not being prosecuted for doing exactly the same by inflicting Brexit on the UK, but if you or I did it by stating facts, we could expect a prison sentence.

The concept of “national security” enables you to do anything, even attack journalists. According to the FBI, some journalists are conspiracy theorists, and therefore they are domestic terrorist threats. Because they are called terrorists, they do not need to be charged with an offence, or prosecuted, tried or convicted.

Like Bin Laden, they can just be murdered by the US government at any time, no questions asked, no justification needed. If someone else murders them for unrelated reasons, they won’t be prosecuted because they murdered terrorists. Then of course those journalists won’t be around to ask the obvious question: who are the terrorists, me or you?

The UK government is rightly concerned that the Official Secrets Act is no longer fit for its original purpose. The internet has changed everything. It is much easier to obtain leaked documents about matters considered national secrets, whether you know the information is classified or not. It is also much easier for people to make their own deductions, based on solid journalism, and then find they have repeated information in a leaked document they knew nothing about, and thus be liable for prosecution.

Therefore the Home Office is seeking proposals for how to reform national security legislation to address current realities. There are indeed many examples of such legislation which could be looked at.

For example, under a fifteenth century bye-law any Welsh person found within the city walls of Chester after sunset and before sunrise is to be decapitated. Chester no longer lives in fear of Welsh rebels invading, but the law has never been repealed, so if someone went to the police and demanded it be enforced it would create a delicate legal situation.

But instead the British government is using such legislation to defend itself, not the country it happens to rule for the moment. It can’t identify terrorists, because fingers would point in some unwelcome directions. But it can attack those who write things the government doesn’t want to hear, in the process of doing their jobs.

If the government itself, or its members, breached national security by their actions, as was alleged during the notorious Profumo Affair of the 1960s, the public would have a right to know, even though such a story would damage the government. Yet BoJos Clown Show is trying to promote exactly the opposite argument: that writing press stories which damage the government should be a national security offence, covered by a reformed Official Secrets Act.

Coming from the man who takes out super-injunctions to prevent people repeating facts they see on the internet, it is obvious why this is happening. But there is another reason. If government = nation, everyone else isn’t the nation. Their security doesn’t matter – and that is the point BoJo is trying to make, before anyone notices.

The Bombs That Won’t Defuse

The idea that national security means protecting the government should be raising a hollow laugh in the great city of Birmingham. Its natives know only too well what that means in practice, and those who lived through those times will never forget.

In 1974 bombs were planted in two pubs in the centre of Birmingham by what were presumed to be IRA terrorists. At the time, this was the worst terrorist atrocity on the UK mainland. But with not that many others to compare it with, few people noticed the anomalies in this case compared to those which came before and after it.

In other cases, everyone asks how a stranger got into their wonderful city and started planting bombs. The press and public look for links with foreigners, external agencies and everything they think their city doesn’t represent.

In Birmingham the immediate assumption, shared by press, public and politicians, was that local Irish people had carried out the bombings. The same Irish everyone lived and worked alongside. Birmingham does indeed have a significant Irish community, but so does every other UK city which saw Irish republican terror attacks. Only in Birmingham was everybody told to suspect their neighbours, not people considered “other”.

Sure enough, six local Irishmen were arrested, a move which stopped most of the random assaults on Irish people which the “Paddys Under The Bed” campaign had unleashed on the streets. The following year they were found guilty of the bombings and sentenced to life imprisonment. But 17 years later they were free – their sentences quashed because the way they had been arrested, tried and convicted was demonstrably far below the standards which should have been required in such cases.

It was campaigning journalists, most notably the sometime MP Chris Mullin, who fought for years to prove the innocence of the accused men. Over time, it became clear that not only had the men been mistreated by the police but shafted by the justice system.

Those involved in the arrest and prosecution of the Birmingham Six had known from the very beginning that they had not committed these bombings, or any others. Evidence had been rewritten after the fact, the science used to convince them was nonsense, and politicians who could have released them a lot earlier knew they were innocent but were afraid of what some people might say, in direct contravention of any principle of justice.

It is obviously in the national interest to know who really did murder twenty-one people in crowded pubs, and how they did it – which has never been established. It is also in the national interest to know how this case was conducted, what was really known, and how all the crimes against these innocent men were committed. But the public will not know the full facts for decades to come – because the British government has sealed the evidence until 2067, claiming it is “in the national interest”.

We know from other events that the British government worked with terrorists to infiltrate the groups they belonged to. But we are told those terrorist groups have disbanded, and many of their members are now respected politicians and professionals. No existing security operation would be put at risk by revealing what happened nearly fifty years ago, in one individual case.

The only “interest” being protected by the sealing of these papers is that of the government. The Home Secretary of the time, responsible for the security services, was Roy Jenkins, who represented Birmingham Stechford, home to many Irish people he would have had some connection with. If the bombers really were local, what did Jenkins know, or what should he have known? If not, why was everybody told to find locals to blame, instead of being encouraged to report what they knew about the sort of “foreign infiltrators” usually blamed for such atrocities?

The machinery of the British government, whoever is in power at a given time, continues to be protected at the expense of the national interest. The victims were only Brummies, or Irish, so what did it matter? You may not be Brummie or Irish, but are equally disposable, even if you are on the “right” side of the politics of the day.

Grey Areas With Black Undercoats

Changing the law isn’t the only step being taken to protect the government at the expense of the country, and call it the “national interest”. Ask an asylum seeker, and those who work with them.

The same British press which told Brummies that they were being bombed by their neighbours has spent a generation screaming about “illegal asylum seekers”. This has led to a common perception that every asylum seeker is a criminal, and therefore a threat to them.

Claiming asylum in another country is not illegal. Not having paperwork to verify your claims is not illegal, as people at risk of persecution can’t be seen by their persecutors walking around with ID. Furthermore, the vast majority of asylum seekers request asylum in developing countries, with Europe receiving only a tiny percentage of such applications, and the UK a tiny fraction of those.

But tell the public that anything to do with seeking asylum is illegal, and you move reporting on it into a different category. How the government deals with asylum seekers becomes a matter of “national security”, because borders and police are involved. How everyone else treats asylum seekers, acting on the signals given by government, also becomes a matter of “national security” which cannot be reported on or discussed because it might embarrass the government.

In 1999 the British government stopped asylum seekers receiving the same welfare benefits as UK nationals, instead giving them “vouchers”. Immediately after this the number of people claiming asylum in the UK fell dramatically. This caused the government to continue with the policy, claiming that people were flooding into the UK because it gave them welfare.

Within a few weeks, this trend had reversed itself. More people were claiming asylum in the UK than ever before, even though they were not getting benefits. Using the government’s own argument, the policy had been an utter failure.

But even then no one was prepared to put those two pieces of information together, because the government refused to make that connection itself. If you did, you had no voice, just like those who claimed that Germany was rearming and the UK was not prepared for the coming war, when that same British government was developing television to provide much of the technology to fight that war, several years before it took place.

To make legislation work you have to create the climate in which it is accepted, as the people behind legislative blunders such as the Poll Tax found to their cost. Tell a lie often enough, you can create that climate and then get away with what you want in the name of the “national interest”, as a great many of those same asylum seekers have found in their own countries.

We The Non-People

No one is going to jail journalists for attacking the government, despite the concerns of civil liberties and journalism bodies over the proposed changes to the Official Secrets Act—at least not yet! If a journalist is that much of a threat, they have a readership, which will probably agree with them and want them to tell more, or they would read someone else. These are not the sort of martyrs you want to create if you rely on votes.

What will happen is that government ministers will decide what they are most sensitive about. Then, in subtle ways, they will make discussion of those things unacceptable – not by talking about the thing itself, but by associating it with other things the public will readily agree are negative.

If ministers lie to parliament, it is in the national interest to expose this, as decisions based on lies lead to worse outcomes than those based on fact. However it is “unparliamentary” for MPs themselves to do this without informing the Speaker in advance. It would be a simple matter to declare any such accusation “defamatory”, even if true, censor it, and ultimately get journalists sacked for breaching what the public would come to accept as a norm, if that was all they were presented with.

If there really is a ring of paedophiles operating in parliament, which the government and police know about but do not stop, they won’t make it illegal to talk about the thing itself. But they will invent new laws about “disclosure”, claiming that any suggestion that a politician is committing a crime should not be revealed because it could be used by enemies of the state.

That’s a different argument, but it has the same effect. It doesn’t protect the state, as what is kept secret has greater blackmail value. But it will protect the government from the people, the ones they are supposed to serve, but actually consider the enemy.

The British government is hoping to create a situation where only members of the government are fit to be regarded as “the nation” and everyone else has something wrong with them. This is how the UK has traditionally presented itself compared to the rest of the world.

The same idea was behind Brexit, which we were told was “the will of the people”. It is only a matter of time before enough of those people see how much their will, their rights or their happiness are actually respected by those claiming to act in their name.

Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.