Selling out the public service
Published in: Daily Mail
At a time when the government is having to grapple with an unprecedented threat to the nation, it is also having to deal with a problem caused by troublesome flies on its own walls.
It has stepped in to prevent the publication of two books that have been written by former officials. The first by Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who was Britain's ambassador to the UN during the build-up to the Iraq war and then the Prime Minister's special envoy to Iraq, has been blocked by Downing Street and the Foreign Office until certain passages are removed. The second, a daily diary kept by former spin doctor Lance Price about his years in Downing Street, has been banned outright for breaching civil service rules.
Such moves will inevitably be seen as an attempt to censor publication of material which might be gravely embarrassing to the government. Certainly, it is generally in the public interest to know what goes on in Whitehall. But there is an even greater public interest in government being able to function effectively and with integrity. These two books are part of a wider and dismaying trend that has all but wrecked that tradition.
It is one thing for politicians to write their memoirs, and to do so after a period of time has elapsed which gives them a modicum of historical perspective. But people like Sir Jeremy Greenstock and Lance Price are not politicians elected for the views they hold. They drew their salaries from the Civil Service payroll, and were supposed to be bound by an ethic of public service based on trust and discretion.
Yet as soon as they left office, that trust and discretion appear to have been scattered to the four winds. Indeed, scarcely was the ink dried on some of their farewell cards than they tried to rush into print, in a grubby attempt to make money out of betraying professional confidences.
There is surely all the difference in the world between an attempt to contribute to public knowledge and understanding and a self-serving, highly partisan exercise designed to portray the former official in a good light, exculpate himself from blame and settle scores or - perhaps most damaging of all - play a political game from which he was formerly barred by the constraints of being a neutral public servant. And to do so, furthermore, for money -whose amount increases in direct proportion to the sensitivity of the confidences that are betrayed.
Sir Jeremy's book reportedly draws widely on private conversations with the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary and on the private deliberations of the UN Security Council. Such a wholesale breach of trust by someone in such a privileged position undermines the whole process of government, in which people only speak to each other frankly on the implicit understanding that such private conversations will not be divulged.
The book is reported to say that the decision to go to war in Iraq was 'politically illegitimate', that UN negotiations 'never rose over the level of awkward diversion for the US administration' and that opportunities were dissipated in 'poor policy analysis and narrow-minded execution'.
If Sir Jeremy had made these opinions public while he was in office, this would have been considered a sacking offence over an outrageous departure into politics for a supposedly dispassionate public servant. So what is the difference now? Nothing - except that now he is free to make money from marketing his views.
He is far from alone. Indeed, there is a veritable stampede of former officials rushing into print. Public servants used to think that the suitable rewards for a lifetime devoted to public service were a comfortable, inflation-proofed pension and a knighthood or some other gong on the Honours List. No longer. Now they are desperate to milk their careers for cash and celebrity.
Sir Christopher Meyer, Britain's former ambassador to the US and now chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, caused dismay and outrage among PCC members when it was revealed that he was to publish his memoirs in which he would claim, among other things, that Tony Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, told him to 'get up the arse of the White House and stay there'.
Although Sir Christopher decided not to accept an expected six-figure sum for any serialisation of his book in the press, accepting that this would jeopardise his impartiality as the overseer of press self-regulation, concern remains about a possible conflict of interest. For if Mr Powell, or anyone else aggrieved by the book's politically controversial views, wished to complain about the newspaper which carried any extracts, the person he would have to complain to would be Sir Christopher.
The public rely on the PCC to uphold standards in the media. But how can people have any faith in it if it is chaired by someone who has himself betrayed official confidences and his professional ethic of trust?
For obvious reasons, trust and discretion are a particular requirement of officials who have been involved in security work. Yet this was spectacularly breached by the former head of MI5, Dame Stella Rimington, who published her memoirs. The very act of publication destroyed at a stroke the principle of absolute loyalty and discretion required for the operational effectiveness of the security service.
Now Lord Stevens, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, is writing his memoirs, which will apparently cover his dealings with the former Home Secretary David Blunkett.
Meanwhile in the wings lurks Alistair Campbell, who kept a diary of his seven years as Downing Street's spin doctor which he now intends to publish for an undoubted fortune. Publication of these diaries would be the ultimate betrayal of the ethics of government service.
The Cabinet Secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull, told Mr Campbell's former deputy, Lance Price, that the whole premise of his own diary was completely unacceptable. How much more completely unacceptable, therefore, would be publication of the diary of Mr Campbell, the man who was arguably privy to more information about the workings of the Blair government than anyone other than the Prime Minister himself?
For Mr Campbell turned the government into an instrument of manipulation and mendacity. And now the last act of this arch-spinner, who brought government to an unprecedented nadir of untrustworthiness, will be to spin his own seminal role in this lamentable story.
Indeed, since he was a journalist before being recruited into Downing Street, one might view his diary as evidence that, far from being motivated by the highest ideals of public service, he saw his entire period in the inner sanctums of government as the supreme marketing opportunity for the ultimate beneficiary of his black arts - himself.
But then, Mr Campbell's memoirs, along with those penned by all the other flies who have crawled off the wall and into the embrace of all-too eager publishers, are a testament to the broader corruption of the civil service. New Labour destroyed Whitehall's ethic of disinterested integrity. Now its former officials are selling their stories to the highest bidder, the government is well and truly hoist by its own polluted petard.