On Freedom of Information, the IRA and the Taliban

For the digital revolution, this is the Robespierre moment | Simon Jenkins | Comment is free | The Guardian

Simon Jenkins is arguing that he agrees with Tony Blair who said in 2010 it was unwise for him to introduce the Freedom of Information Act that Parliament passed (with Labour having an overwhelming majority after the 1997 landslide) in 2000. He also says that the trend towards “total disclosure” has led to much less information being committed to paper and to civil servants, politicians and others being more circumspect about what they say to each other lest it end up in a newspaper. The BBC blog article he cites for the Blair quote actually says that the version that was passed was considerably watered down from what the government introduced, and suggests that Blair probably regrets it because it caused his party and government great embarrassment.

In 2000, Labour were in their first term in office since 1979, they still had some genuine Labour MPs in the Cabinet (such as Michael Meacher) and probably still had some reforming zeal. By the time Labour fell from power in 2010, they had purged all the left-wingers from the Cabinet and were an authoritarian, security-obsessed, war-mongering party which had submitted to the demands of the Bush regime at every turn. Blair complained that it was mostly journalists who used the FOI rather than “the people”. Of course, this is journalists doing their job of holding government to account and exposing waste or inefficiency, let alone wrongdoing. Activists also use the FOI, but most of “the people” are busy working and do not have the time to make such requests. There are also numerous grounds for refusing these requests, such the cost of sourcing the information, national security and even commercial interests, including companies who are under public contracts.

As an example of the “total disclosure” culture, he offers the ruling by a US court that tapes held at Boston College of members of the IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries from Northern Ireland talking about their crimes “in strict confidence to Boston academics” be handed over to the NI police, which he calls “an outrageous breach of confidence”. The tapes include material about such crimes as the murder of Jean McConville, a mother of ten who was murdered for tending to a British soldier she saw lying injured on the streets. After her disappearance (she was secretly buried south of the border), her children were split up and some of them ended up in Catholic children’s homes where they were abused. Nobody has been prosecuted for her murder, so it remains an unsolved case, and justice has not been done.

Price revealed herself in a newspaper interview that she had taken part in the so-called Belfast Project, in which former paramilitaries talk about their crimes on the understanding that the material is not released until after their death. Of course, if any other criminal gave details of their crime to a third party, that material is evidence which could justifiably be used against them in court, regardless of the “confidence” in which they had confessed, or boasted, of their crime. If you are a criminal and haven’t been caught, and wish to continue concealing your crime, you do not talk about it to anyone, let alone tell a newspaper journalist exactly where all the details of your crime are held. The only “breach of confidence” here was committed by Price herself, presumably because she thought she, and her fellow murderers, were above the law.

Also in today’s Guardian, there is news that a senior Taliban commander has given an interview which is to be published in the New Statesman tomorrow (I’m a subscriber, so I won’t get it until Friday and after work at that) in which he calls al-Qa’ida “a plague that was sent down to us by the heavens” and says that he was relieved when he heard that Osama bin Laden had been killed. The sentiment chimes with an article I read shortly after 9/11 on Mas’ud Khan’s website (which I cannot access at the moment, but a copy of it is here), in which a Spanish Muslim writer details how both Chechnya and the Taliban were both unable to prevent their territory being infiltrated by al-Qa’ida and used for that organisation’s ends, until both were destroyed by hostile forces. It is made clear that he is speaking anonymously and that the rest of the Taliban leadership do not know who he is; however, it was the Taliban’s own extreme brand of Islamic rule that made them an attractive prospect for al-Qa’ida in the first place and also alienated them from so much of the Muslim community in the 1990s which regarded them as an embarrassment. In some aspects such as their treatment of women (the enforcement of the Afghan burqa, the denial of education, healthcare and so on) they were more extreme than al-Qa’ida. Regardless of their support in the southern Afghan countryside, a very large proportion of Afghanis will never want to live under their rule again and neither would the vast majority of Muslims, even those who professed support for them the first time round.

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