I am convinced the only person in Britain with a true understanding of the consequences of Freedom of Information is Jack Straw. The home secretary’s critics claim his resistance to FoI is rooted in some pathological distrust of open democracy. That’s quite unfair. His concerns are rational indeed. This government has some very specific information – records of meetings,phone calls, deals – it would hope to keep very un-free.
One year ago this month at a Whitehall cocktail party, a little man with sweat beaded on his forehead pushed his card into my hand – it gave his address as 10 Downing Street – and made me an eye-opening offer. “Just tell me what you want and who you want to meet,” and he, Roger Liddle of the prime minister’s policy unit, would quietly arrange the special access. My American company had only to retain his former lobby firm, then directed by Derek Draper. The next day Liddle followed up with a call from Downing St. My “American company” was a fake. I was operating undercover for the Observer. A week later we broke the “Lobbygate” story about a flea market in favors operated by lobbyists for their privileged clients. The government denied it all, even the phone call from Roger Liddle. Then I knew we had them. The Observer merely had to print Number 10 phone records, and the truth would be exposed. But the joke was on me. As an American raised on Freedom of Information it never crossed my mind that phone calls by public servants from public offices could be sealed as confidential. But seal it they did.
The government had a whole lot more than Roger Liddle’s phone records to keep buried. I taped lobbyists describing in nauseating detail several back door meetings in the treasury and the PM’s offices on mergers, taxes and exemptions to environmental law. With US-style FoI legislation, I would have had cold verification of the meetings from ministerial diaries and file notes. The Lobbygate sword would have struck much deeper. In one instance, Derek Draper boasted to me that he had got his hands on exact government spending figures in advance of the chancellor’s Budget speech, insider information which the laddish lobbyist passed to US bankers, (who did not act on the information). Had someone at the treasury leaked him these valuable numbers? Allow me the honor of submitting your nation’s very first Freedom of Information request:
FoI No 1: Provide the dates, subject matters and notes of calls and meetings between Mr Derek Draper, Mr Gordon Brown and his special advisers.
Most debate over FoI in Britain has remained on the level of garden party generalities. If you want to understand your government’s discomfort with letting the sun shine on their filing cabinets, consider a few of the items forced out of politicos’ bat caves on my side of the Atlantic.
— The Monsanto Files: US government officials were caught passing confidential European Commission reports on GM foods to the biogenetics giant. This nasty little business was rooted out of the personal notes of a Canadian health ministry official – a document I obtained through Canada’s access to information law.
— The Pinochet Files: Go to the website of the National Security Archives and read the CIA’s preparation for Salvador Allende’s inauguration: “Sub-machine guns and ammo being sent by regular courier leaving Washington 0700 hours…”
— The Heartbreaker Files: Pfizer Pharmaceutical sold heart valves it knew were defective. US regulators learned of it but sat on their hands. These sorry truths were revealed through public display of company documents (imposed on regulated industries) and the government’s own investigation files which are open to scrutiny.
This last case underscores the most dangerous exclusion from FoI proposed by New Labour, the protection of “commercial confidences”. The government claims release of documents from private enterprises could cause them substantial harm. Of course it will. That’s the point. Exposure of the broken heart valves cost Pfizer millions. Good.
Compare that outcome to the office of fair trading’s recent handling of Volvo’s price fixing scam. The OFT kindly sealed all Volvo evidence, telling ripped-off customers seeking compensation: “Scram, Sam.” The original FoI White Paper (a Suharto-esque proposal rashly praised by open-government campaigners) defends closed communications between corporate powers and government on the specious grounds that, “relations between public authorities and the private sector need to rest on two-way openness and trust”. But that is what you should fear most. In the Lobbygate investigation, we learned that Tesco operatives held secret sessions with cabinet advisers which resulted in exempting superstores from a proposed 20m tax. We can assume these meetings between government and Tesco had plenty of “two-way openness and trust” – which, hopefully, FoI will ruin. This government will learn to invite the third party affected by these tax exemption swap fests, the public which picks up the bill.
Shortly after Labor took power, the energy minister met behind closed doors with oil companies seeking to drill off the coast of Scotland. Environmentalists howled. A DTI spokesman griped: “The idea that we are being secretive is ridiculous. Are we supposed to hold all our meetings in public?” In a democracy, the answer is, yes. At the minimum, give us details of the confabs. Not that the US government happily hands over damning documents. President Clinton tried to deep-six files from his policy task force (yes, we have them too). US courts fined the White House $300,000 for violating the FoI law and threatened a special adviser with jail. An FoI with teeth could revolutionise British democracy. At the least, it would allow me to follow up some tantalising leads from Lobbygate. One lobbyist claimed he was owed favours by the minister for whom he once worked – and could turn those favors into special access for his clients. This may well have been an empty boast, but in anticipation of the new law, I submit the following:
FoI No 2: Provide the dates, subject matters and all records pertaining to contacts between lobbyist Ben Lucas, his clients and the Rt Hon Jack Straw.
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Gregory Palast writes the award-winning column, “Inside Corporate America” fortnightly in Britain’s Sunday newspaper, The Observer, part of the Guardian Media Group, where this first appeared.