Martin Bright

My BBC Radio 4 Analysis programme on Secrecy

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Can secrets ever be good for you? I used to describe myself as a “free speech fundamentalist” and believed that there were almost no circumstances in which official secrets should be withheld from the public (one exception was when disclosure would put the lives of individual members of the armed forces or intelligence services at risk). 

But over recent years I have become worried that the cost whistleblowers pay for their disclosures is too high. I worked closely with two high-profile leakers, Katharine Gun from the government’s secret surveillance centre, GCHQ, and Derek Pasquill, a former Foreign Office civil servant. Both ended up being hauled in front of the courts and both have found it difficult to find work since.

In each case, there was an argument for disclosure in the public interest. Gun revealed details of a spying operation on the United Nations Security Council in advance of the Iraq War and Derek Pasquill disclosed the UK government’s policy towards radical Islamist groups.

Gun and Pasquill both say they have no regrets about what they did. I believe they are both courageous individuals who put their own careers and livelihoods on the line in the interests of the wider public. But the personal cost was considerable.

My concerns led me to wonder where this fetish for secrecy came from? Is there a human instinct towards secrecy or towards disclosure? Is it merely a question of character: some people are secretive and others prefer to splurge?  Where are the origins of our ability to keep secrets? How do we learn this as children? Is it always psychologically damaging to keep secrets

My radio programme is an attempt to answer these questions.

Lisa Jardine, head of the Human Fertility and Embryology Authority, made a surprising revelation: “I spend so much of my time now dealing with openness that I’m positively nostalgic for secrecy and discretion… For me, the social capacity to be discreet, to remain silent, to withhold information on occasion or opinion on occasion is a really important and subtle part of social relations, and we ride roughshod over that at our peril.”

Child psychologist Max van Manen argued that sometimes secrets are good for you and that learning discretion is a crucial part of a child’s development. He told me: “A mature person knows when to hold things inside and when to share and in what situations and with what kinds of people you share certain kinds of things and with what kind of people do you not. And that’s a process of becoming you know an independently thinking, responsible adult.”

One surprising champion of openness was Rear Admiral Nick Wilkinson, the former head of the government’s D-Notice Committee, which advises media organizations on what can and can’t be said about the intelligence services. He told me: “Everything that’s done in the name of the public should be made public, and the only question is how quickly.” He believed whistleblowers played an important role in a democracy: “For the wider good whistleblowers should, if not be encouraged, at least supported. And I think part of the problem is that whistleblowers are used by the media and others and given temporary support, but it doesn’t last.”

His comments struck home. Journalists rarely see their duty of care to a source as extending beyond the time frame of an individual story.

As a journalist I have been a grateful beneficiary of the confessional culture. But perhaps journalists do need to learn a little old-fashioned discretion. I’m not so naïve as to believe that this could ever be covered by legislation or a professional code of conduct. But a more mature relationship between the media and the state would benefit everyone.

The government has a part to play here. Max van Manen said that a mature person knows when to hold things inside and when to share. Could the same also apply to a country? Perhaps a mature democracy should know when to hold things inside and when to share.

Analysis is on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 26th October at 8.30pm