It is unlikely that the contents of the memo leaked by David Keogh and Leo O’Connor, for which the two men were jailed last week, will ever be disclosed. The British government has a long tradition of covering up its Middle East embarrassments. O’Connor’s barrister remarked during the trial that the war in Iraq was the most controversial foreign affairs involvement of this country since Suez, but more than 50 years since Anthony Eden invaded Egypt, there are still documents which Whitehall refuses to release.
While working last year on a BBC series about the Suez crisis, I applied to the Cabinet Office under the Freedom of Information Act for the release of all withheld documents. It was a bit of a fishing expedition (just the sort of journalistic abuse of FoI that Lord Falconer despises) but well worth doing. I hoped that the Cabinet Office might consider the 50th anniversary of Suez an important enough occasion for putting all documents in the public domain. Some documents were released, after a six-month wait, but nothing revelatory. I was also told that a number of documents would not be disclosed as they related to “security matters” or would “prejudice” international relations.
“We acknowledge that release of information relating to the Suez crisis may add to the understanding and knowledge of this subject,” wrote the Cabinet Office’s Histories, Openness and Records Unit. “However, in favour of withholding this information we consider that, in this case, the effective conduct of the UK’s international relations, and its ability to protect and promote its interests abroad, would be compromised if we released the information … it is strongly against the public interest to damage our international relations in this way.” It appears the same mixture of imperious and Alice-in-Wonderland logic which led the judge to censor reporting of the trial last week is also at work in the Cabinet Office.
It took years before the full truth of Suez emerged, and decades before the document revealing the secret agreement between France, Israel and Britain to invade Egypt was disclosed – and that was only because the Israelis still had a copy. But it seems remarkable that there could be documents whose content is so inflammatory that it could still damage international relations. Suez, clearly, cannot yet be consigned to history. It’s still live – at least as long as Britain meddles in the Middle East.
The irony is that Anthony Eden did not just discuss the possibility of bombing an Arab broadcaster – as President Bush was once reported to have contemplated – he actually did it. Eden was obsessed with the influence of the Voice of the Arabs, the most popular radio station at the time in the Arab world. It transmitted from Cairo and Eden believed that it was damaging British interests in the Middle East. The one and only time he met President Nasser, he asked him to tone down the propaganda.
As Britain prepared to invade Egypt in 1956, the Voice of the Arabs was one of Eden’s first targets. Planners hesitated when they believed it would mean bombing the heart of Cairo and killing civilians. But when they realised that the transmitters were outside the city, they went ahead. They didn’t, however, do a very efficient job: the Voice of the Arabs was up and running again within days. Eden’s plan was to broadcast his own propaganda in Arabic from Cyprus. He requisitioned another Arab radio station and a number of inexperienced Foreign Office Arabists were flown in to man the station – renamed the Voice of Britain – but it was not a success.
History repeats itself, tragic and farcical both times around. Little is learned except that embarrassing and illegal activity must be kept out of the public domain, apparently for all time.