Friday, November 28, 2008

Why Protest About Green, But Not Tisdall or Ponting?

It was revealing that the first instinct of several Labour bloggers was not, as you might have expected, to engage with the issue of Damian Green's arrest. It was to attack my interpretation of it and the Conservative reaction. Yes, Luke Akehurst and Sunder Katwala, I'm talking about you.

Luke reckons I have double standards on the basis that I wouldn't have criticised the Thatcher government over the arrest of Sarah Tisdall or Clive Ponting in the mid 1980s. Sunder reckons I am inconsistent because in my post last night I said it was dangerous to comment on breaking news stories without knowing the full facts and then proceeded to do just that. Well, if that's the worst he can do...

But let me engage with Luke's argument, for it is one worth having. He says...
Iain Dale is already getting a bit self-righteous about Damian Green being arrested over alleged Home Office leaks. I wonder what position Iain took on civil servant Sarah Tisdall, jailed for 4 months for leaking documents, or civil servant Clive Ponting, charged but acquitted of a similar offence? Of course it was his hero Margaret Thatcher who ordered their prosecution, so I'm sure he thought it was justified, and didn't huff and puff like he is now.

Labour commenters on previous threads have also adopted a similar argument, and even questioned what I would be saying if Margaret Thatcher or John Major had ordered the arrest of an Opposition politician in the 1980s or 1990s. That point falls flat on its face, because they didn't.

Anyway, back to Mr Akehurst. This is what I posted in his blog comments in response...
Luke, You are quite right, I didn't comment on those two cases. I didn't have a blog at the time. And I suspect you are also right, that if I had, I might not have been so vociferous in defence of civil liberties. It was a very different age. That's no excuse, just an assessment of my thoughts at the time. I suspect at that time I would have had more trust in the state to do the right thing. I was probably in favour of ID cards too. But I have seen the light.

The thing that most concerns me is the deployment of counter terrorism police and the government's willingness to use counter terror legislation in a way they promised they never would. As I said in my original post, it is too early to make a full analysis, but surely you, like me, must be concerned at the way this has been done.

But not a bit of it. Luke, even now, hasn't expressed a scintilla of concern. But let me turn his question back on himself. Imagine if a Conservative government had been in power, and a Labour Opposition spokesman had done what Damian Green had done and was then arrested for it. Does anyone seriously believe that Luke Akehurst, Sunder Katwala and every other Labour blogger wouldn't be protesting on their blogs about it? Of course they would. I would also like to think that if a Conservative government charged a whistleblower that I too would protest about it.

One should also bear in mind that neither Tisdall or Ponting were Parliamentarians. Ponting leaked information to Tam Dalyell. No one even considered arresting him.

John Major had every opportunity to take action against Robin Cook and Gordon Brown in the 1990s and all those in the civil service of leaked to them on an almost weekly basis. The fact is that neither he, nor the Police would have done so or even thought about it.

I frankly have no idea whether Jacqui Smith knew about the arrests. Ken Clarke and Michael Howard find it inconceivable that she didn't. I do too. Surely to goodness it's something her Permanent Secretary would have at least informed her of, even if she wasn't actually consulted. I suppose the question is this: if she was informed prior to it happeneding, would she, or should she have issued an order preventing the arrest from happening? I would submit that if either Clarke or Howard had been Home Secretary they would have done just that.

As someone said in the comments, if she knew, it's a sign we live in an authoritarian state. If she didn't it's a further sign that we're moving towards a Police state.


Doug said...

We all know how much dirt was on the Labour MPs when in opposition whether it be leaks or links to extremist organisations. And yet not once did the Conservative government use the police to arrest a Labour MP. The only difference between socialism and totalitarianism is time. It seems 11 years is a key tipping point.

Nigel said...

While I had no sympathy with the treatment of Tisdall and Ponting, you touch on a key point here, Iain.

Green is an MP, and however much we are entitled as individuals to hold MPs in utter contempt, and to seek to throw them out of office at the earliest opportunity, the institutions of the state have a constitutional obligation to show them respect.

David Boothroyd said...

When Tam Dalyell received the papers which Clive Ponting had leaked, he realized their importance. Unlike Damian Green he did not go to the press or disclose them to the public. Instead he gave them to the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, a Conservative MP, who returned them to the Ministry of Defence.

Sir Watkin said...

Can we put to rest the fuss about "Counter-Terrorism Police", please, as it's a red herring? (There are enough grave issues raised by this case without getting sidetracked.)

As a matter of routine, cases where there was a potential breach of the Official Secrets Act always fell to Special Branch. Now that S.B. has been incorporated into the Counter-Terrorism Command they fall to officers within that command. They aren't C.T. officers in the sense that they are people who ought to be chasing Al Qaeda. It's simply an accidental result of the way the Met is organised internally.

Doug said...

Also remember that Sarah Tisdall pleaded guilty to offences under the OSA. I certainly think the timing of the arrival of nuclear weapons is dangerous information to leak.

Tony said...

Both Tisdall and Ponting leaked information concerning military matters, which brought their behaviour genuinely into the realm of national security.

The information allegedly leaked to Damian Green concerned immigration matters, which are patently outside the realm of national security.

The information that was leaked, be it by a civil servant, Green or anyone else had and has absolutely no implications for our military or national security. Those people who are trying to use the Tisdall and Ponting cases to justify the disgraceful treatment of Damian Green are either not very bright or extremely deluded.

Damian Green's bail conditions should be removed immediately and his instruction to answer bail in February cancelled. As for the government's media statements about this matter since last night, methinks the comrades doth protest too much.

Nigel said...

The alleged offense for which Green was arrested had nothing to do with the Offical Secrets Act.

AndyR said...

Welsh: "Can we put to rest the fuss about "Counter-Terrorism Police", please, as it's a red herring?"

It plays into a wider feeling that the government is passing "anti-terrorism" legislation then twisting it for their own uses. The name means a lot, and if they're not CT officers then they shouldn't be called that.

Jimmy said...

The premise of your argument appears to require an assumption the Green's arrest was ordered by the Government. There is no evidence for this and it has been denied. The only politician who has attempted thus far to insinuate himself into what is after all an operational matter for the police is the head of their Police Authority Mr. Johnson.

The comparison with previous administrations is not a flattering one. Mrs. Thatcher may not have had any MPs arrested but she certainly threatened to lock up Peter Preston, an aspect omitted from your analysis.

It is important to compare like with like. Mr. Green is not accused merely of being the recipient of these documents but of persuading a civil servant to breach his duty of confidentiality and indeed do so repeatedly. If the Conservative Party believes this should be legal then it should say so. If it does not then it can hardly claim that its members should be exempt from the law.

Anonymous said...

There is disgraceful prevarication on the part of the leftist and liberal commentators and the media like the BBC, Guardian and Independent. I will include The Times these days as Murdoch and his papers support Brown.
Michael White posted a pathetic piece
full of 'ifs' and 'buts' mildly saying Damien was doing his job. But soon he faced a barrage of critical response and he withdrew.
Nick Robinson the Brownite has posted apiece so wishy washy that it too has been attracting bad criticisms. I used to read Michael White's article in 1990s about Brown and Cook's leakages and he used superlatives
to comment on 'their heroic exploits'. The liberal media is shamefully silent and is so Brownite Brown that it has beocme irrelevant.

Luke Akehurst said...


you say the "thing that most concerns me is the deployment of counter terrorism police and the government's willingness to use counter terror legislation" but a) the legislation was common law not anti-terrorism legislation; and b) the police concerned may sit in the Counter Terrorism Command but that's just an organisational anomaly, these are Special Branch guys who spend all their time investigating crimes connected to politics, they are not counter terrorist police in the way you have implied.

If the BBC reporting of which 4documents were leaked is true, then a public interest defence is clearly legitimate on some of them, but to my mind the alleged leaking private correspondence from the whips about expected voting patterns, is, if true a gross breach of trust and of the duty the civil service to loyally serve the government of the day. Morally, accepting stolen documents where there is no public interest is not much above Nixon's use of burglars at Watergate.

Mr Green should have told his source to only give him documents that the public had an interest in knowing about, not ones that would just confer partisan advantage.

As for Tisdall and Ponting I'm from the bit of the Labour Party that supported Cruise missiles and the sinking of the Belgrano, the 2 issues they were leaking about, so I wouldn't have been any more exercised about their cases than I am about this one.

Sean said...

Tony Benn no less, told world at one programme that the detention of Damian Green was a breach of the privilege of parliament.

Matthew Hewitt said...

The difference between Civil Servants, who may be in breach of the Official Secrets Act and an MP, who publicises material which may already have reached them in breach of the Act is fundamental. Civil Servants should properly be prosecuted under the OSA if they leak material deemed secret - they are supposed to be impartial and work under the directions of Ministers. MP's should be at liberty to disclose whatever information they deem should be in the public domain - if they are deemed to have acted irresponsibly, or in breach of a duty not to disclose some matters on grounds of national security, then they should resign. Prosecuting MP's under the OSA is not, however, something we should be contemplating in a democracy.

David Lindsay said...

Let some good come of the Police’s contempt of Parliament, although of course the arresting officers and those who authorised them will have to be imprisoned for a time.

Let the Official Secrets Acts be repealed.

And let the Police concentrate on arresting those sitting or former MPs who are war criminals.

not an economist said...

Personally, its the very lack of concern of Labour supporters about htis issue that worries me. In less thoughtful moments we can all agree that BNP members don't deserve to be treated as others cos their creed is so vile and revolting. But some Labour supporters seem to extend such antipathy to other party's aswell.

PhilC said...

Iain, you wrote: "I suppose the question is this: if she (the Home Secretary) was informed prior to it happeneding, would she, or should she have issued an order preventing the arrest from happening?"

Wouldn't that amount to political interference? If the police need to pursue - shouldn't they pursue it regardless where it leads?

Your concern rests on the supposition that all this originated from the government and not the police. I can't see the government being so dim as to bring so much grief on themselves over relatively minor leaks.

PS: Luke Akehurst's comment on not caring about the Tisdall and Ponting prosecution make me hold my head in my hands. Tisdall, remember, exposed how Heseltine planned to keep parliament in the dark about a matter of national debate.

Nigel said...

You raise a slightly more interesting point than the rest of the state apologists here, but you are confusing morality with legal and constitutional propriety.

As for this absurd common law arrest, if it is true that there was no direction from the Home Secretary (and I am deeply skeptical that she could be ignorant of the matter unless she deliberately arranged to be so), then the acting Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson really ought to arrest himself on 'suspicion of misconduct in a public office'.

Martin said...

Is see you have switched from being a goofer to a troofer Iain. A small amount of progress, I guess, good luck on your journey!

Unknown said...

Tony Sharp wrote:

The information allegedly leaked to Damian Green concerned immigration matters, which are patently outside the realm of national security.

I agree with you, but Charlie Elphicke at Centre Right clearly doesn't:

As the people of Dover stare out across the sea from the White Cliffs, their overriding concern is for the safety and security of our borders and the security of our nation. It is of immense comfort for them to know that Damian Green MP stands with them.

Living in the Gateway to England, they know first hand how the Government has totally failed to keep our borders secure. They know all about the disgusting human trafficking that goes on, the bogus asylum seekers and the evil crime syndicates that smuggle people in who have no right to be here. My mailbag as the Conservative Parliamentary candidate for Dover is filled with disgust and concern about the situation. They know the Government does nothing about it and has lost control of our borders.

So amid the protests about Stalinesque behaviour, show trials and coverups, let's not forget what Damian is really in the dock for. Let's not forget his brilliant work fighting tirelessly to hold the Government to account for its disgraceful failure to keep our nation and its borders safe.

Nice to see at least one Tory making the distinction between immigration and national security, though.

Man in a Shed said...

Luke won't have to imagine a Conservative government shortly - assuming Brown allows democracy to continue to function.

This is in many ways as big an issue for the Labour MPs who survive the next general election, though perhaps the others will be too busy selling the Big Issue.

Sir Watkin said...


"The alleged offense for which Green was arrested had nothing to do with the Offical Secrets Act."

Yes, but note the word "potential" in my post. A leak raises the possibility that the OSA has been breached, so SB (as was) will investigate, tho' as the inquiry develops it may lead to quite different charges.


You raise a valid point about a perception of mission-creep with CT legislation/capabilities.

There are practical reasons why officers from CTC investigate this sort offence (e.g. they have the necessary security clearances to deal with classified documents), but I agree it looks bad.

CTC is really the Counter-Terrorism (plus-a-few-other-things-that-don't-fit-anywhere-really) Command, but that wouldn't be a very snappy title. All organisations have this sort of anomaly, it's just that in those cases no-one cares or draws sinister conclusions.

But I return to my substantive point: this "CT police" business is a red herring and distracts us from the grave issues at stake in this case.

Matthew said...


It is a shame that you have not linked to other Labour bloggers, notably Tom Harris and Hopi Sen, who were very moderate in their comments and expressed doubts about the way Damian Green was treated. However, they are also right to counsel against a rush to judgment.

I don't disagree with you that Damian Green's treatment was heavy-handed and that opposition politicians should not be arrested if they are just doing their jobs.

Where I part company with you is on the hysterical suggestion that this is somehow evidence of a totalitarian state. It's a grave accusation and the evidence to support it simply hasn't been produced.

There are supporters of all parties who will be deeply uncomfortable about this case. It raises real questions about the culture of secrecy in British politics and about the Official Secrets Act in particular (first passed by a Liberal government, by the way!).

Let's use this to start a cross-party debate about reform of Britain's secrecy laws. In that spirit, we should all refrain from partisan point-scoring and focus on improving our democracy.

Sunder Katwala said...


I feel that you have misread my post, and the intent behind it.

"The Conservatives are indignant. It might turn out that have every right to be. (They may know more about the rest of us about the events of the day). Iain Dale is already quoting Martin Niemoller and campaigning for the Ashford One, though he also mentions the perils of commenting on a live story.

For now, those of us relying on publicly available information just don't know enough about it to judge".

I knew almost nothing at the time - writing about 10pm - and so said I would comment substantively in the morning. But I was pointing out that the Conservatives could well know directly rather more than was public (it seemed to me from your post you had spoken to party insiders) and that this might justifiably explain the strength of reaction. (My reference to your "mentioning the perils of commenting on a live story" was to acknowledge that you had done that; that was intended to signal I wasn't criticising your expressing your initial view as you had acknowledged that things might change. I think you have read it as meaning the opposite). It isn't a big deal, but just to clarify what I was thinking.

That initial post also said it would be depressing and wrong if Labour bloggers jumped to a partisan response. (I've posted twice today on Next Left and Liberal Conspiracy, saying this should be common ground across parties. Stuart White has also posted on the Fabian blog about this).

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it's because I'm biased as a former civil servant myself, but I can't see the difference between MPs and civil servants here.

Let me make it clear that I'm concerned about the Damian Green case - I'm not using the arrest of the Home Office civil servant to justify Green's arrest.

But what I am saying is that if Damian Green's publishing material is in the public interest, then it's difficult to argue that the disclosure of the same material to him wasn't equally in the public interest. You can't say it's wrong to deter his handling and publishing the material, but right to deter others from giving it to him.

One of the things that brings MPs into disrepute is the way they often seem to want special treatment not available to ordinary citizens - and this is an example. I'm glad David Cameron is making a fuss about this, but I'd be much more impressed if the Conservatives now took a stand on changing the law on leaks generally - I agree completely with the suggestion in your other post, Iain, that ministers should be made fully subject to whatever rules apply to everyone else - and showed some concern about the treatment of the civil servant too.

Jimmy said...

The distinction between an MP and a civil servant in this context is that the latter owes a duty of confidentiality where the MP does not. Green was not arrested for publishing the information (as has been pointed out MPs regularly do this) but on the well established principle that to procure the commission of an indictable offence by another person is itself an offence.

Mulligan said...

Fair game I say, never mind 9 hours detention without charge let's invoke the full 42 days he wanted for Brown and his treasonable surrender over Lisbon once he gets evicted from office. (a day that cannot come a minute too soon)

Anonymous said...

I think making fine distinctions based on who owes exactly what duties to whom, and whether X asks Y for a document or receives it unsolicited, is to miss the big picture, Jimmy.

The big picture is about secretive vs. open government, how secretive government can be held to account, and what we think the public should be allowed to know; or at least, what should happen to people who disclose things to MPs, in Parliament or more widely, because they think the public has a right to know them.

The big picture is how we expect ministers, civil servants and MPs to discharge the duty they all equally owe - to the public.

Yak40 said...

we can all agree that BNP members don't deserve to be treated as others cos their creed is so vile and revolting.

No we can't. The BNP is a legal political party and should be treated the same as any other while this is so.

Just because you don't like them is not sufficient reason to treat them differently.

I don't like them either but that's neither here nor there in this instance.

Jimmy said...


I don't think these are fine distinctions at all. I accept that government cannot function if every single draft or memo is contemporaneously published and a civil servant who is unable to grasp the point has probably chosen the wrong career.

Martin said...

synchronously is probably a better word, or just at the same time

strapworld said...

I tried to put a comment on the biased BBC Nick Robinsons ridiculous blog....

I got this back. I place below it what I wrote! Sensitive flower is he not!! BUT read their first paragraph.. WE pay their wages and they treat us with so much disrespect!!


"Dear BBC Blog contributor,

Thank you for contributing to a BBC Blog. Unfortunately we've had to remove your content below

Comments posted to BBC blogs will be removed if they are considered likely to provoke, attack or offend others; are racist, sexist, homophobic, sexually explicit, abusive or otherwise objectionable; are considered to have been posted with an intention to disrupt; contain swear words (including abbreviations or alternative spellings) or other language likely to offend.

You can read the BBC Blog and messageboard House Rules in full here:

If you can rewrite your contribution to remove the problem, we'd be happy for you to post it again.

Please note that anyone who seriously or repeatedly breaks the House Rules may have action taken against their account.


The BBC Blog Team

MY COMMENT:- - - - - - - - - - -

Green's arrest draws parallels


Mr Robinson.

You are the political correspondent of the British Broadcasting Corporation. That means you must be absolutely A-political.

Yes, you can give your views, but they must be based on fairness and reasonableness. BUT you should not, indeed cannot show BIAS.

I am afraid that over the past months your bias towards the Labour Government has been obvious. Disgracefully so.

This reposte to the disgraceful arrest of Damian Green is quite unbelievable. How on gods earth you can equate this to an investigation of Corruption, is frankly beyond me.

Let us recall that many people, at the time, considered that the Prime Minister of the day was far too close for comfort and, for that reason, many people understood the reasons for her arrest.

This arrest could have, quite reasonably been arranged by asking Mr Green to attend a police station.

That aside. Why are you not raising the obvious that most MP's, especially the present Prime Minister and Robin Cook, have used 'leaks' many times.

That has been considered quite legitimate BUT No, in your haste to airbrush the past you have given your support to what is fast becoming a Communistic Government.

Many of your former colleagues must watch you and wonder how you made the grade.

I am an old man and I can tell you that you are, in my opinion, a disgrace to your position and profession.

All I can say is that in life I have learned that what goes around certainly does come around and you will very soon discover that fact!

Jess The Dog said...

Wasn't Tisdall grassed up by the-then Guardian editor?

Also: some of those on the left have said this is the same as Ruth Turner etc. in the cash for honours. Wrong. Cash-for honours (and the Hain investigation) were about party activities. This arrest is concerned with Mr Green's discharge of his responsibilities as an MP. It is a direct threat to Parliamentary democracy.

Jess The Dog said...

Robin Cook:

I may be on the other side of the political divide, but he was an excellent Parliamentarian and used leaked information to great effect, and this was usually in the public interest.

Damien Green is doing exactly the same.

Jimmy said...


The Guardian editor "grassed up" Tisdall on threat of being banged up by Maggie. This was of course prior to the Tories' recent Damascene conversion to the cause of civil liberties.

Anonymous said...

It was this generation of MPs who voted into law the creation of SOCA, fundamentally changing the balance of power in this country between the public and it's politcal representatives on the one hand and the government and the state on the other.
SOCA is a police force accountable to the government rather than the Monarch (in Parliament).
It is a cuckoo in the nest of the traditional police forces of the UK, unleashed to suborn their officers into serving it, removing their independence and creating a UK "FBI".
The basis for it's powers lie in the anti-"terror" legislation which gives it massive powers way beyond any police force ever before in the UK.
For "terror" read "dissent".
The supreme power of the Monarch was transfered over centuries to Parliament.
Parliament has now given the executive it's own police force: SOCA.

Johnny Norfolk said...

It has the sneaky labour goverments finger prints all over it. Labour sacked the last DG of the BBC because of the truth he had told about Blair, and the BBC has been afraid of Labour ever since. Labour are now trying to intimidate people for passing information that we should know about.

If Labour think theycan pull the wool over our eyes think again.

It is government by fear and intimidation.

Labour have passed laws that have allowed this to happen. I knew what was comming when that old man was frog marched from the Labour conference for shouting rubbish.

Labour will do anything to stop the truth comming out.

It is a outrage against the people.

Somerset rebel said...

Am I the only person to have noticed the extent to which the Labourgraph have dumbed down this story a la BBC. Broon's ZANuLabour friends again!

Martin said...

Somerset rebel, yes. Don't sound so surprised though, it will ruin the effect.

tory boys never grow up said...

I haven't yet seen any good reason why Green's arrest was necessary or appropriate. As for the Tories being hypocrites regarding their own views on civil liberties (and much else) when they were in power - please tell me something that we don't already know. It still doesn't mean that they may be right on this.

I somehow have my doubts about the assertion that members of the Government knew about this all along - given the unequivocal denials this would be an automatic resigning matter were this not the case. I wouldn't be at all surprised if some elements of the Police were now operating to their own agenda - and it wouldn't be the first time that it has happened, but I'm not sure that it yet makes us a police state.

Cui bono?

Martin said...

I had just assumed the police piled in on Green to make someone else sweat, or break for cover. Cameron looked very uncomfortable taking questions about it.

Hacked Off said...

Apart from the fact that this police harrassment involved an MP and breached Parliamentary privilege, whichis rightly being condemned from all sides, it is part and parcel with the recent harrassment of BNP activists in Liverpool.

I don't know where the anonymous poster cut and pasted this from, onto the Old Holborn blog, but:

" Victory for BNP as Liverpool Police Drop all Charges against Activists

Police have dropped all charges against the BNP’s ‘Liverpool 13′, admitting that there is no evidence to substantiate any of the allegations of ‘racism.’

The remarkable move came early this morning, when all thirteen men were hand delivered letters by members of the Liverpool constabulary. The letters, which formally advised the men that there was ‘insufficient evidence’ to pursue charges, were pushed through their doors by policemen, who then quickly left before being forced to talk to anybody to explain.

“The looming BNP demonstration in the city centre, set for this morning, was clearly too much for the political chiefs of the Liverpool police,” said Nick Griffin, BNP chairman.

“We knew all along that there was nothing wrong with the ‘Racism Cuts Both Ways’ booklets, but the rapidity of the police climbdown is testament to the boldness and dedication of BNP activists,” Mr Griffin said.

“The realisation that their Gestapo-like tactics had engendered a broad public revulsion and had energised the BNP, is probably the primary reason for their decision to drop all charges,” he continued.

“The final straw must have come when they realised there was nothing racist in the BNP’s material. In fact, the booklet in question is an anti-racist publication.”

Mr Griffin praised the dedication of all the BNP activists who had sworn to attend this morning’s protest meeting in Liverpool city centre, saying that this was obviously a factor in forcing the police’s hand as well.

“We are still going ahead with an activity today in Liverpool, even if it might be something slightly different,” Mr Griffin said. "

Do you want a police state? Or totalitarianism?

If not, it is as important to protest about illegal and unwarranted harrassment of those you disagree with as much as of those you do agree with.

The Penguin

Paul Burgin said...

Iain I will be blogging further about this this afternoon, where I am more critical about what has happened.
I admit, to some shame, that if this was a Conservative govt, I would probably been quicker to condemn and as it is I am more cautious. But I think in the scenario I have just mentioned I would have been slightly wrong and caution in these situations, irrespective of political parties, is ideal, particually in the 24/7 culture we live in.
But since my initial post I have heard of one or two further details that have added to my disquiet

Unknown said...

Opposition parties are pro-civil liberties; governments rather anti. The Tories in office were happy to use the Official Secrets Act when it suited them; Labour politicians protested. Now Labour is in office the positions are reversed. Should the Tories form a government, they will no doubt be converted to pragmatic secrecy and Labour will reassume the more comfortable role of defenders of liberty.

Hacked Off said...


This is nothing to do with the Official Secrets Act, it is everything to do with plod using draconian measures in support of a corrupt government wishing to silence it's critics.

Tom said...

"And yet not once did the Conservative government use the police to arrest a Labour MP"

I'm sorry Doug, but when have the current government done this themselves?