Govt ‘restricting freedom of speech’

The government will be restricting freedom of speech and diluting public debate on foreign policy if it proceeds with plans to censor the memoirs of former diplomats, an influential group of MPs has said.

Diplomats are now required to commit to never publishing work on their experiences when they retire upon entering the service. The public administration committee said the move was “unduly restrictive” and would “substantially diminish informed discussion of major world events”.

Chairman Tony Wright said the Foreign Office needed to draw up a new set of proposals.

“The Foreign Office was clearly disturbed that former ambassadors like Christopher Meyer and Craig Murray were able to publish highly critical memoirs while paying only lip service to the rules,” he said.

“But in trying to stop that happening again, they have changed the rules in a way that has – at least on paper – serious unintended consequences. This looks like a case of ‘back to the drawing board’.”

The MPs expressed concerns the rules could easily bar former diplomats from giving comments to TV stations or radio programmes for the rest of their lives, and said public understanding of events in places like Pakistan and Zimbabwe would be negatively affected.

The government has also attempted to remove the right of appeal in cases where the government objects to sections of a former diplomat’s memoirs.

“Freedom of information means that it is not up to the government to decide what information is made public, and what stays private,” Mr Wright continued.

“Yet there seem to be different rules for memoirs. If I were a minister or a civil servant writing my memoirs, I would think it was reasonable for government to suggest changes I should make for public interest reasons, but not for it to censor me.

The committee suggested using the information commissioner as final arbiter of what is in the public interest.

Efforts to reform the rules surrounding diplomats’ memoirs stepped up a gear after Christopher Meyer, UK ambassador to Washington, published his account of the run up to the Iraq war.

Describing several Cabinet members as “political pygmies”, Mr Meyer said Tony Blair was so “seduced” by US power he failed to exert any pressure on the president.

In a previous public administration committee hearing, Jack Straw – then foreign secretary – said the book got past government censors because it was “mainly tittle tattle”.