A pair of Charlies

by | Oct 20, 2012 | David Cameron, FOI

The establishment wagons are circling – after Simon Jenkins’ kneejerk salvo against FOI in the Guardian, now Charles Moore, the Godfather of traditionalist opinion, coughs up a deplorable rant in the Telegraph that makes Jenkins look positively forward-thinking.

The most obvious thing is that Moore doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He admits this himself – asserting that the current records of government will be empty for fear of FOI exposure, he says “Obviously, I have seen the files of the 1980s and not those of the present, post-FoI era, so I cannot speak with authority”. A couple of paragraphs later, Charles gets tired of this problem, so he inverts it, complaining that as a consequence of technology, “huge amounts of information are kept”. He claims that FOI “gave no thought” to email. Email is included, Charles, and there are even cost limits on requests to prevent unlimited and pointless trawls of them. A lack of evidence or a consistent chain of thought is thankfully no barrier to Moore’s unique insights, as he notes that “FOI provides an exemption for journalistic endeavour”, even though it doesn’t.

Moore’s bad manners in pontificating on a subject he hasn’t bothered to research ought to void his opinions (admittedly this might be a pot / kettle moment), but even when you take him on, all you find is a straightforward defence of the status quo, except the one he wants to defend is circa 1985. The scant record keeping he can’t prove is happening but nevertheless attributes to FOI is Moore’s explanation for the ill-thought-out nature of current government. This is like the tabloid journalists who want to use Jimmy Savile as a stick with which to beat Leveson – interfere with our work, and we won’t be able to expose these monsters, even though Savile’s monstrous behaviour went entirely unexposed. Moore’s antipathy to FOI is based on the premise that before 2005, government was entirely free of both “dishonesty and intrigue” and muddy, unrecorded thinking, and only now that FOI is infecting the process is the great machine of government beginning to malfunction.

I think it is objectively fair to say that dishonesty and incompetence are not entirely new concepts to the British ruling elite, unless Moore thinks that the Suez Crisis, Profumo, the Mau Mau cover-ups, the sinking of the Belgrano, Hillsborough, the Poll Tax, the Iraq Supergun and the Cones Hotline are all examples of honest government and strategic thinking at their most sublime. But even if I’m wrong, Moore’s evidence for the ill-considered nature of current decision-making is “this week, energy pricing”. But the energy cock-up doesn’t support his case  – the problem with Cameron’s policy announcement is that he announced it without telling other ministers or finishing it off. It’s not FOI that’s the problem here, it’s a rattled PM shooting his mouth off.

I am in a worse position than Moore to comment on what’s really happening in Central Government because I don’t have privileged access to civil servants – he can assert that “officials tell me that the striking thing about modern government files is that they do not really exist”, and I’m sure he’s not just making that up for effect. Most of my clients are outside Central Government, so I don’t know the truth of it. Axe-grinders like Gus O’Donnell and Jack Straw and establishment apologists like Moore tell us that FOI is leaving behind only scorched earth – nothing is written down, everything is deleted.

I apologise for saying this again, but as the Justice Committee found, firstly we only have their word for it – no real evidence of this process exists beyond the moaning of yesterday’s men and the bleatings of their few allies in the media. But more importantly, even if it was true, this is not an argument for abolishing FOI. This is an argument for better politicians, for braver politicians. Moore’s case for secrecy is set out clearly enough. Government and the civil service need to operate with the security of knowing that their information will be kept secret for decades.

Without such security, there can be no honesty. It is simple: if you fear your private communication will be laid before the world, you will write it quite differently, or not at all.”

The electorate has to be infantilised, patronised, kept in the dark – we’re not mature enough to know how decisions are made, not even after the deciding is done. According to Charles Moore, the people who pay for the process aren’t entitled to see how it works. Only much later (when everyone affected might be dead) should a historian be allowed access, and then present this to the smaller number of people who read the history books. Rather than being entitled to ask what the current government is doing now, Moore says that we should only be allowed to buy his book about what went on thirty years after it makes any difference. We need history, but we also need contemporaneous accountability, investigation and a bit of well-aimed mischief to keep our rulers on their toes. If David Cameron stops keeping proper records to hide what he and his associates have done, we can judge him on that. I’m optimistic enough to think that a new generation of politicians can emerge who are willing to live with the uncertainty and discomfort that FOI inevitably brings. The ICO’s unacceptable FOI backlogs delayed the dawn of this new era, and the pain is perhaps sharper for the fact that the false start between 2005 and 2009 lulled Whitehall into thinking that FOI wasn’t as difficult as it turns to be and always should have been. As Jon Baines pointed out on Twitter, Moore’s own paper shows evidence that a different perspective may already be growing.

Moore says I’m a “prig” for wanting a more equal arrangement than that, but his approach is hardly respectable. As a columnist, Moore is relying on his opinions rather than research and facts, and he attacks tools that his own colleagues use with almost excessive enthusiasm. There’s one Telegraph journalist in particular that I can always use as shorthand for “hack that makes shedloads of FOIs”. But more importantly, Moore is also a relic of an age of deference where people in authority could be trusted to make decisions in secret, their thinking only revealed decades later. The world has moved on; George Osborne can’t even escape live-tweeted scrutiny on the Pendolino, and Moore’s inflexible, establishment approach makes him seem like an appalling old waxwork.

And with that seamless link, my last thought is about the events that occasioned Moore’s whinge – the use of the veto to prevent disclosure of Prince Charles’ letters to government departments. Again, the irony of Moore’s position on FOI is underlined by the fact that he chooses to attack the legislation using a vehicle that shows how government retains the upper hand. FOI Man has nailed the FOI issues, and Joan Smith of the Guardian has skewered the Prince, so I have little to add, except to say that Moore’s parting shot is ridiculous: “proper process is dying, and the courtiers are back in charge”. What FOI has shown us here is that Moore’s idea of the proper process (deference and secrecy) takes precedence. How can the couriers be in charge, when the law is changed to keep the Prince’s interference secret no matter what the public interest might be, and the heir to the throne’s constitutional neutrality is preserved only by the fig leaf of the process?