Matthew Dancona

The spooks are squirming. But be careful what you wish for

As the controversy over torture gathers pace, it is ‘open season’ on the intelligence agencies — investigated by the police and challenged by MPs. Scrutiny is fine, says Matthew d’Ancona — but beware of making life impossible for those responsible for our security

As the controversy over torture gathers pace, it is ‘open season’ on the intelligence agencies — investigated by the police and challenged by MPs. Scrutiny is fine, says Matthew d’Ancona — but beware of making life impossible for those responsible for our security

‘One question at any rate was answered. Never, for any reason on earth, could you wish for an increase of pain. Of pain you could wish only one thing: that it should stop. Nothing in the world was so bad as physical pain. In the face of pain there are no heroes, no heroes, he thought over and over as he writhed on the floor, clutching uselessly at his disabled left arm.’

The agonised thoughts of Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, though fictional, say all that needs to be said about torture: its wickedness and futility. A man in pain will say whatever he thinks will make the pain stop: it might be the truth, but it is just as likely to be nonsense.

My first job in journalism was at the human rights magazine Index on Censorship: it was a given that torture was utterly beyond the pale, so abhorrent that its immorality scarcely needed to be stated. I still regard this as an article of faith. Yet, in the past week, it has proved necessary for the Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary and head of MI6 to say that they are against torture — as if the matter might be in some doubt.

In a co-authored article in the Sunday Telegraph, David Miliband and Alan Johnson wrote: ‘It is about our values as a nation, and about what we do, not just what we say. We have taken a leading role to eradicate torture internationally, both through organisations such as the UN and by assisting other countries.’ In a BBC radio programme broadcast on Monday, Sir John Scarlett, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) said that there is ‘no torture and no complicity in torture’ by MI6 and that ‘our officers are as committed to the values and the human rights values of liberal democracy as anybody else’.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.

Or

Unlock more articles

REGISTER

Comments

Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in