Wednesday, November 01, 2006


There’s a lot of hoo-ha in the UK over the Freedom of Information Act. This was introduced in the year 2000 when the government thought they were all in favour of the common man being privy to what was going on in their country. Since then it has become apparent that, what seemed like a good idea at the time, in view of subsequent governmental shenanigans, might not be quite so good.

“Hold on a minute,” they say, “ We didn’t really mean free, you know. And a lot of that information isn’t for you.”

And so, in order to rein in the thirst for information that might discredit Her Majesty’s Government in some way, they now propose to introduce swingeing charges that will effectively curb much prodding and poking in the grubbier environs of Whitehall.

In America, they have long had a similar act that works pretty well. And a popular thirst for information prevails. There, citizens aspiring to public office are subjected to an amazing inquisition that, if necessary, can dredge up misdemeanours they committed in kindergarten, to prevent them from taking office. Under the circumstances, it’s a wonder anyone applies for the job, and I suspect that a good many loyal citizens, who could provide a valuable input to government, prefer to maintain their privacy and go back to milking their cows in Wisconsin.

The exception is, of course, the president, who for some inexplicable reason, no doubt an ordinance signed by a former president, is exempt from this farrago of nonsense. Exempt, that is, until the media take a dislike to him. So my advice to those who wish to take any part in American politics would be to make sure that you are president, nothing less, and then to have writers such as Bob Woodward and Seymour Hersch to lunch as often as possible.

Some years ago I was researching a book on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and their exile to The Bahamas during the war. The British had washed their hands of them once they were safely immobilised, and little information was available from official British sources. By contrast, America, in the solid shape of J. Edgar Hoover, had been obsessed with the couple and, under the Freedom of Information Act, I was able to access his bulging files on the couple for little more than the cost of the air fare to Washington. Although it made no difference to my research, I was intrigued to see that all of the information was not always available. In many cases, the names and addresses on letters had been blacked out, although very often a shrewd guess could be made as to the correspondents.

In bygone days, there was a pleasing assumption on the part of a possibly naïve electorate, that, as they had voted the government into power, in return the government would both keep them apprised of relevant matters and, more importantly, would tell them the truth. Those days of innocence seem to be long gone.

Whatever the excuse was for starting the Crimean War, it seems to have been accepted by the British public, and there were of course, some benefits. Without it, the nation would have been bereft of Balaclava Helmets, Cardigans and Raglan coats, as well as Lord Tennyson’s poem, which seems to have been written on a bad day for Poet Laureates.

The Boer War was similarly accepted without much demur even if the cause was even foggier. Here my father had a close shave at the siege of Ladysmith. He was not present, but happened to be born on the day it was relieved and narrowly escaped being named after it. It was as much a relief to him in later years as it must have been to the beleaguered garrison at the time. Fortunately, my grandfather had put his foot down.

The next two wars also had the approbation of the citizens, as the government had no reason for deception, the threat to their way of life being obvious.

But latterly, it seems that government, far from being by the people and for the people, has adopted the role that was previously the prerogative of dictators. And as far as I’m aware, neither Hitler, Mussolini, nor Franco would have had much time for Freedom of Information Acts. Nor does seem that the present British Government feels too chuffed about the idea, so their only weapon is to price it out of reach.

It’s certainly beyond my means already.

But then, if it’s a bit of scandal I’m after, I can always go and read it up in The Mail on Sunday – I’m sure they’ll be able to afford the fee.

And if the government would tell the truth, there wouldn’t be much need for the act, anyway.


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