Britain: No right to ‘public interest’ defence for officials who leaked memo
10 May 2007

As Tony Blair announced his resignation, David Keogh and Leo O’Connor were sentenced for breaching the Official Secrets Act: convicted for revealing the contents of a conversation between the British Prime Minister and President George Bush about Iraq, which took place in 2004.

It is not possible to discuss the contents of the memo – not only were journalists and members of the public sent out of court when it was discussed, but the attorney general has ruled that the media cannot even repeat allegations about the memo which have already been published.

So an extraordinary, Kafkaesque chain of secrecy remains in place, protecting Tony Blair from immense potential embarrassment on the day he announces the end of his era. He may not wish his legacy to be marred or dominated by Iraq, especially as he announces his departure, but the timing of the trial has spoilt any chance of that.

Government employees do not blow the whistle lightly. David Keogh was a communications officer. He said that he acted out of conscience and thought that the document revealed Bush as a ‘madman’. Keogh copied the memo to Leo O’Connor, who was a researcher for the MP Anthony Clarke.

Keogh’s aim was for it to be discussed in the Commons and to be read by John Kerry, the US presidential candidate. However, O’Connor passed the memo to Clarke who then alerted Downing Street. The memo, in fact, made a very short journey.

The prosecution claimed that the release of the document could have endangered lives, but conceded that the leak did not constitute ‘actual damage’. Tony Blair’s foreign policy adviser Sir Nigel Sheinwald said it would have sparked international tensions. David Keogh’s barrister insisted that there was nothing in the memo which would have put British troops at risk.

The contents of the memo are in the public interest – but no such defence exists for whistleblowers. In 1989, the Labour Party had argued for the introduction of a public interest defence in the Official Secrets Act, but once in power, New Labour showed little sign of pushing for such a change.

In fact, it has shown itself quick to use the OSA wherever necessary to protect its own interests. Sir Nigel Sheinwald told the jury that conversations between political leaders should remain confidential – even if the content was immoral or illegal.

Al-Jazeera, meanwhile, is applying for the release of the memo through the Freedom of Information Act. So the story is not over yet – but a leader who once called for more open government has marked the end of his tenure in a veil of secrecy.

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