The Damian Green Affair: What are the Issues?

December 12, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

The recent much publicised arrest of Tory immigration spokesman Damian Green in relation to stuff being leaked by one Christopher Galley, a civil servant and co-incidentally a Tory activist, has led to acres of newsprint being used up by normally establishment papers, such as the Telegraph, in defence of Mr Green and the tradition of whistleblowing. What has particularly provoked these people is that Mr Green is a member of parliament – and a Tory one at that – and should not have been treated this way.

However are we not seeing double standards here? When it is a right wing MP leaking stuff about immigration then it is all OK, but when it is a trade unionist revealing management lies being perpetrated in the public sector or in government then it is quite a different story.

Remember the case of Clive Ponting. He was a civil servant at the Ministry of Defence who was charged after leaking documents that proved that the Thatcher government had lied over the sinking of the Belgrano during the 1982 Falklands war. Taken to court in 1985, he was cleared by a jury of breaking the Official Secrets Act, much to the anger and embarrassment of the Tories and the right wing press who had said that he was breaking the law and should be punished.

In 1984 another civil servant, Sarah Tisdall, was jailed for six months after the courts had forced the Guardian to reveal papers that they had received on the movement of cruise missiles to Greenham Common. Using these papers, the authorities were able to identify who had leaked them in the first place and take her to court. Again, little sympathy from the Tories or their friends in Fleet Street.

Lets us look at the more recent case of Katharine Gun, a translator employed by the government listening body GCHQ. Just before the start of the Iraq war, she came across an email to GCHQ from an official in the US requesting help in monitoring delegates from six non-permanent members of the UN Security Council who might be wavering over a crucial vote to support the invasion. She was horrified by this: “‘I felt the British intelligence services were being asked to do something that would undermine the whole UN democratic process itself.” She leaked the story out and it was picked up by the Observer newspaper. She did not hide the fact that she had leaked this and what, as a result, was her fate? She was arrested, questioned at length, kept in a cell overnight and spent the next few months being questioned time and again before she was finally charged under the Official Secrets Act in 2004. Her defence was that she believed the government had acted illegally in going to war and her lawyers demanded, amongst other things, the text of Lord Goldsmith’s advice to the government on the legal justification for war. However, just before the case was due to go to court, the case was dropped by the Crown on the basis that they simply were not going to reveal this evidence and therefore preferred not to proceed with the trial. Ms Gun was therefore found not guilty. Compared to Mr Green, this case got relatively little publicity and few felt motivated to complain about her treatment.

Beyond these high profile cases are the thousands of less publicised ones where employees have leaked, in the public interest, details of abuses which are being covered up by assorted managements. Many of these whistleblowers are trade unionists. For example in early 2000, Sarah Friday – who was an RMT safety rep based at Waterloo – was sacked by South West Trains after she raised concerns on health and safety grounds following the Ladbroke Grove crash, which had occurred just a few months earlier in 1999. For whistleblowers like Sarah, there is little or no support from the likes of the Tory Party or the establishment media. The only time they get interested in such revelations is if they are on issues such as immigration they can try to use in the Tory interest. Otherwise these people are often left alone to take on the continual pressure from employers who seek revenge for having had their misdemeanours exposed to the wider public.

The journalists who use these leaks have also been subject to harassment. Roger Ackroyd, a freelance journalist and NUJ member, wrote a story in 1999 about the medical treatment of one of the Moors Murderers and spent the next eight years being pursued through the courts by Mersey Care NHS Trust after he refused to reveal his source. It was not until 2007 that the House of Lords finally confirmed that the Trust could make no further appeal against the High court decision not to force Mr Ackroyd to reveal his source. That the Mersey Care NHS Trust were prepared to go to such lengths to get the source revealed shows how keen they were to establish a legal precedent that would have seriously undermined the position of whistleblowers in passing stuff onto reporters.

So whereas, as socialists, we should always defend those who act as whistleblowers – whatever their motives – in revealing that which the authorities would rather keep hidden from us, we should also be aware that the Green affair serves to show that, as in all things, double standards are being applied. You cannot help but wonder if the stirring defence of Mr Green now being mounted has very little in fact to do with the need to ensure that things are out in the open and not hidden away from public eyes by those who do not wish us to know what is being done in our name.

This article first appeared on Socialist Appeal.

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This post was written by Steve Jones

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