The Telegraph on the gagging of ex-diplomats by the Foreign Office

Whether or not prompted in part by my Ephems piece of 3 October 2007 about the Foreign Office's new rule barring retired diplomats from expressing their opinions on current affairs without prior FCO approval, or by my own original source, Sir Edward Clay's New Statesman article of 6 September, the Daily Telegraph has now joined the fray with a hard-hitting piece by Hugh Miles that will, I hope, cause some urgent scurrying around in King Charles Street.

I responded to an invitation from the Telegraph to write a comment on their story, but it has been demoted from the print edition to a rather remote corner of the Daily Telegraph website: you can read it here.  I am reproducing my original text below to preserve the layout from the strange newspaper practice of making every sentence a new paragraph; apart from that, it is only lightly edited in the DT website version.  (The story in the print edition includes a box quoting my name and opening sentence and providing a website address from which an exceptionally diligent Telegraph reader with a computer and an internet connection can reach my comment: better than nothing!)  The tireless eagle-eyed blogger Tim Worstall has already picked it up in a very good piece in the online magazine The Business, well worth reading. 

Here's what I wrote (hyperlinks now added):

Is the Foreign Office simply protecting its official secrets, or seeking to save ministers from embarrassment?  Official secrets are protected by the Official Secrets Act, which rightly binds officials for life, both as government employees and after retirement.  The new rules go much further, banning any unauthorised expression of opinion not just by serving officers but by also by retired diplomats for the rest of their lives, if it "draws on, or appears to draw on, official information or experience gained in the course of official duties", even if no breach of secrets is involved.  Had this been in force a few years ago, it could have prevented publication of the ground-breaking letter of 52 former ambassadors and other senior ex-diplomats constructively criticising the government's middle east policies.  It would prevent ex-diplomats with unrivalled experience "gained in the course of their official duties" from writing articles or letters to the newspapers or giving radio or television interviews on controversial foreign policy issues such as Iraq.  It would have closed down several stimulating and informative blogs (including mine!) and pre-empted many  diplomatic memoirs.  Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones, former senior diplomat, would presumably have been prevented from serving as the official opposition spokesperson on security matters in parliament.  It would have silenced the sage contributions to House of Lords debates of several other ex-diplomats, now peers.

The government naturally curtails its serving officials' freedom to publish personal opinions on political issues.  But suppressing the opinions of experienced retired officers is surely a gag too far.  As private citizens we are guaranteed freedom of expression by the European Human Rights Convention: none of its permitted exemptions justifies the breach of that freedom which the FCO now apparently seeks to impose. 

It's tempting to urge newly retired officers to ignore the gag: publish and be damned!  But in the past the FCO has not been above threatening the pensions of retired officers whose intentions risk embarrassment to ministers and mandarins.  The threat might or might not be bluff:  few of us have sufficient private means to risk testing that in court.  The government may seek to reassure us that the rule will not be unreasonably enforced.  Past experience teaches us not to trust any such assurances.  My old department should think again.

Brian Barder

I doubt if this latest assault on the civil liberties of former members of HM Diplomatic Service (and indirectly on the freedom of the press) will have thousands marching in protest from Trafalgar Square to the august portals of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office;  even former diplomats are not a widely admired or trusted species, for whatever reason.  But this fresh incursion deserves to be noted, logged and challenged as much as all the others.


1 Response

  1. Keep commenting, Brian.  If they send you to the Scrubs I will visit you without fail.

    Brian (prisoner no. 22714665) writes:  Thanks, John.  That will make it all worthwhile.