“Hello?” *** “OK.” *** “‘Bye.”
Infuriated by a report of a case before the Information Tribunal by the grand but anti-Blair Richard Norton-Taylor, I took the precaution of reading the decision by Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner (pdf of Decision Notice FS50341647).
The Foreign Office is appealing against Graham’s decision that parts of the transcript of a telephone conversation between Tony Blair and George Bush in March 2003 should be published.
I thought that this was nincompoopery of the highest category, the results of Freedom of Information gone mad. The Act ought to have an absolute exemption for policy advice and for policy discussions with foreign leaders. Otherwise no one will give ministers honest or difficult advice and no foreign leaders will say anything useful to British prime ministers.
The dangers of a subjective “public interest” override are illustrated by Graham’s pompous anti-war bias in his decision (paragraph 67):
The Commissioner considers that accountability for the decision to take military action against another country is … paramount.
That may be true, but publishing confidential transcripts is not accountability. The Government was accountable for the decision to take military action to the House of Commons and to the British people. The Commons voted in March 2003 and has had every chance to vote since on the results of inquiries by the Foreign Affairs committee, the Intelligence and Security Committee, the Hutton inquiry and the Butler inquiry. The British people voted in 2005.
So I thought Graham’s third-person opinion that the need to publish was “paramount”, apparently taking precedence over the requirements of good government and of US-UK relations, was arrogant and wrong.
Fortunately, that was not what the Commissioner was arguing. Look at paragraph 86:
The Commissioner has decided to order partial disclosure of the information in this case, such disclosure being limited to select extracts of the information which concern the Iraq issue only from the UK perspective, and which do not reveal any confidences or information given by the US, nor prejudice UK relations with either the US, the UN or any other countries.
In a secret annex to his decision, Graham sets out the bits of the transcript that he thinks should not be published, namely anything that President Bush said, or that Blair said referring to anything that Bush said, or anything that would “prejudice UK relations” with the US, other countries or the UN.
In which case, it is hard to see the point of publishing any of it at all. All that can be left must be “Hello?” and “OK” and “‘Bye”.
All the same, I doubt that the US authorities will take such a relaxed view of disclosure. If a President thinks the transcript of private conversations is going to be published by a foreign country, he will be circumspect. That is not in Britain’s interest.
And, even if it were harmless in this case, the pomposity of the Commissioner’s way of saying that he did not agree with the war is annoying and alarming:
The Commissioner considers that such was the gravity and controversy of the decision by Prime Minister Blair to commit the country to the military action taken in Iraq, then any information which might provide the public with an insight or awareness of the Prime Minister’s thinking during the critical period when the decision was finalised, and its implications for the UK carries with it a powerful and compelling public interest in disclosure.
This is anti-war shoemakers, on stilts. The only reason for thinking it important that these transcripts must be published is that they contain the hidden “real” reason for going to war – because that decision was so unreasonable that no right-thinking peacenik could have made it.
The reasons that Cabinet and Parliament authorised military action were the reasons given at the time. It was not possible for Blair to have secretly “committed” the UK to war in conversation, or correspondence, with Bush.
The Information Commissioner should not be siding with the conspiracy theorists, but, more importantly, he should not be allowed to undermine the US-UK relationship in this way.
Photograph: Getty ImagesTagged in: foi, freedom of information, iraq war
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