Under a section headed ‘Open Government’, the Labour Party election manifesto of 1997 declared how “Unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in government and defective policy decisions”. It made reference to the Scott Report on weapons sales to Iraq under the Conservative Party and pledged that Labour would fight for a Freedom of Information Act and more open government. Many voters were highly impressed with New Labour’s alleged crusade for accountability and gave them their full support at the election.
In December of that year Tony Blair proudly revealed the White Paper Your Right to Know: The Government’s Proposals for a Freedom of Information Act. The document advocated “establishing a general right of access to official records and information”, and stated this would lead to more open and accountable government.
The much awaited Freedom of Information Act received Royal Assent on 30 November 2000 and was brought fully into force in January 2005. In June a report by the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which assessed the first three months of the new Act, found that Ministers and Whitehall bureaucrats were failing to open up the government and disclose information punctually to the public as previously pledged. The report showed that Whitehall departments had not revealed all the information asked for by the public in half of all cases and that there had been hold-ups in a third of all requests.
Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said in the Guardian (24 June) that some departments had been so bad that “in any other field, the government would be sending in a hit squad to take the functions over from them because they couldn’t do the job”. Pointing particularly at the Home Office, he continued: “The legislation seems to have passed them by. They are living in a time warp.”
In July, with Blair gearing up for his G8 meeting in Gleneagles, the government decided to release more than 500 documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act – previously blocked documents produced by the Strategy Unit under Lord Birt, a Blair adviser. However, the government chose to release them on the Friday evening of the Live 8 events around the country, in the full knowledge that the weekend press would focus so much on the Live 8 concerts they’d have little concern for anything else.
On 22 November the Daily Mirror printed a report, headed “Bush plot to bomb his Arab ally”, which referred to a leaked 5-page government memo contending that US President George Bush considered bombing Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Qatar and was talked out of it by Blair. Readers eagerly awaited further revelations and wondered how the government would react to the disclosure. But did the Blair government greet the openness that such an enquiry could bring and comply with requests for further information on the matter? Not on your nelly! The government rather had the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, threaten the Mirror and other newspapers with the Official Secrets Act, elevating the disclosure of any further information to a treasonable offence.
It is somewhat ironic that a government, which had blatantly and dramatically lied to the British public over Iraq’s WMDs in an attempt to get them to support a war in Iraq, a war which was presented as being very much in our interests, should now be saying that disclosure of the memo was not in the national interest. After all, such an attack on Al Jazeera’s Qatar base could have resulted in retaliation against the British public at home and abroad.
And it was not as if the USA had not already set a precedent in attacking Al Jazeera offices. During the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, a US ‘smart bomb’ hit their Kabul offices. Two years later, in April 2003, the war in Iraq in full swing, their Baghdad office was hit by a missile. In the latter incident not only had Al Jazeera provided the Pentagon with its co-ordinates, fearing another ‘mistaken’ attack, but witnesses in the area saw the plane fly twice over the building before it was hit. That same day the Baghdad office of Abu Dhabi TV was also hit.
What possible motive could the US have had for wishing to bomb Al Jazeera? Well, Al Jazeera is based in Qatar, a country considered a US ally and its staff are gleaned from all around the world, even Britain, so there can be little question of the TV station being considered an enemy. Al Jazeera’s only agenda is to report the news to an audience of 50 million and in a difficult climate. When the TV station first began broadcasting it won much acclaim in the US. The New York Times eulogized it as a “beacon of freedom” and White House officials saw it as living testimony that the Arab world wanted democracy and freedom of speech. But then the US top brass realised that Al Jazeera has a ‘tell it like it is’ method of reporting; that it was not going to bury the truth like so many western TV stations. It began reporting in gruesome detail what it saw, so much so that it has a nifty sideline in selling footage to foreign TV companies. Moreover, it aired the alleged Osama bin Laden video tapes to the Arab world. Clearly the TV station was becoming something of a “turbulent priest” that the kings of oil wanted rid of.
When, in 2003, Paul Wolfowitz, the US Deputy Defence Secretary claimed Al Jazeera was “endangering the lives of US troops”, it was Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defense who upped hostility to the TV station by falsely claiming it was collaborating with Iraqi insurgents. At the behest of their US puppet-masters, the newly elected Iraqi government had Al Jazeera temporarily thrown out of the country.
Back in June of 2005, Donald Rumsfeld further complained about Al Jazeera tarnishing the good old US image “day after day”. When US forces launched a massive and merciless assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah, stopping all men of military age from leaving the city before the attack and with many hundreds of civilians dying in the consequent napalm bombardment, Rumsfeld commented on Al Jazeerah’s coverage of the atrocity: “I can definitely say that what Al Jazeera is doing is vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable.”
George Orwell once said: “during times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Well, events before and since the invasion of Iraq have revealed we certainly live in times of universal deceit, so maybe Bush wanted Al Jazeera knocked out for its revolutionary act of telling the truth about the occupation of Iraq.
In prosecuting the former Cabinet Official David Keogh along with Leo O’Connor, a researcher to the former Labour MP, Tony Clarke, over the leaked memo, and in threatening the media with the Official Secrets Act, the government is guilty of the same crime that the story focused on – namely that of attempting to strangle the truth. Blair, on the one hand, allegedly advises Bush that it would not be wise to bomb Al Jazeera, who would have been bombed because they reveal the truth which the US finds harmful. Yet Blair clamps down on all attempts to bring the circumstances surrounding the memo to public attention, because to do so would likewise harm Bush.
George Orwell left us with another memorable quote: “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” This is exactly what New Labour, indeed the Bush-Blair bandwagon, is all about – controlling the future via their control of the present and what information is available to us and in the interests of their own backers. The Labour government ceases to be “open to scrutiny” and accountable to the people and instead becomes the puppet of US foreign policy its detractors always claimed it to be, losing what trust supporters might have had in it.
Of course none of the above should come as a surprise to the well informed, who are highly attuned to the Machiavellian goings-on of the executive of big business, namely governments. Few governments rule by force nowadays; most rule by consent, a consent granted by a misinformed and constantly lied-to public. Were governments really open with the truth, they would live as long as it would take the masses to tie their metaphorical nooses. Indeed, it was George Bush Snr who once said: “If the people knew what we had done, they would chase us down the street and lynch us.”
One thing that the Socialist Party can pride itself on is its openness. We have no secrets; nothing we say or do is said or done behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny. Our EC meetings, Conferences and Delegate Meetings are always open to the public and there is nothing stopping members of the public speaking at the same. Moreover, all of the reports of these meetings are available for scrutiny, even posted on the Web. And there are reasons for this – not only do we believe in accountability and feel it important to win the trust and respect of our fellow workers, we further envisage socialist society to be free, open and democratic, with all delegates wholly accountable to the people who elect them, so it makes sense that an organisation advocating such a society should hold its own democratic procedures up as a model.
And as advocates of democracy, free speech and accountability, we will be closely watching the trial of David Keogh and Leo O’Connor at Bow Street Magistrates Court on 10 January, though without much hope that this case will result in a triumph in the cause of government accountability. For Blair and Bush there is just too much at stake – the truth.