Richard Norton-Taylor, The State of Secrecy: Spies and the Media in Britain (Bloomsbury 2023), 352pp. Richard Norton-Taylor, The State of Secrecy: Spies and the Media in Britain (Bloomsbury 2023), 352pp.

There is much to admire and to learn from in The State of Secrecy, but it is the power of the state itself that needs to be challenged, argues Des Freedman

Secrecy protects the powerful from being caught out. Those who make a living from trying to catch them out are, sadly, all too rare. Richard Norton-Taylor is one of them: the former security correspondent of the Guardian and long-time campaigner for transparency, who has spent decades trying to shed light on the operations of the defence, security and intelligence agencies, and to reveal the determination of governments and civil servants to keep these details hidden. He has a long track record of confronting British foreign policy, including his opposition to Nato’s bombing of Serbia in 1999, which he described as a ‘cowards’ war’ (p.49), and his well-documented claim that the Iraq War constituted an ‘unprecedented abuse of intelligence’ (p.8), an argument that few journalists made publicly at the time.

Norton-Taylor has written a fascinating and detailed account of how key parts of the state operate outside of public scrutiny and also how they cajole, persuade, threaten and sometimes recruit journalists in order to protect, as they put it, national security. The book was first published in 2020 but its recently published paperback version provides a further opportunity to learn about the role of the shadowy figures – the spies, officials and ministers – whose job it is to make sure that the state can pursue its strategic interests without being held accountable to voters.

Secrecy is a key weapon of the British state, which is why there is such a long tradition of burying classified documents and criminalising people (whether journalists like Julian Assange or civil servants like Sarah Tisdall) who leak what the state does not want you to see. It is why Clement Attlee kept quiet about developing nuclear weapons, why Harold Wilson didn’t talk about his government’s expansion of the Polaris nuclear missile programme and why Tony Blair lied about the UK not being involved in extraordinary rendition following the Iraq War. It is why we have the Official Secrets Act (OSA), Public Interest Immunity certificates (i.e. gagging orders) and more recently ‘strategic lawsuits against public participation (or ‘SLAPPs’) which are the preferred tool of the wealthiest individuals to silence their critics and to ‘chill’ public debate. Secrecy is endemic to a system run by a tiny minority of people who want to keep this fact under wraps.

A history of secrets

Norton-Taylor provides a brief history of intelligence organisations and their spies, including MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the SAS. He is clear that ‘they should be subjected to more rigorous, independent scrutiny’ (p.172) and that the obsession with secrecy means that ‘intelligence’ (if that is what it indeed is) is often involved in perpetuating ‘wrongdoing, even unlawful acts’ (p. 192). This is particularly the case for major ‘mistakes and errors of judgement during the so-called war on terror’ (p.223) where the invasion of Iraq was justified by dodgy intelligence and human-rights abuses, including unlawful treatment and extraordinary rendition, that was simply denied by the government. Some of this eventually emerged in the much delayed Chilcot inquiry into the UK’s role in the Iraq War. This was forced on the British government, given the combination of splits in elite opinion and the growth of a strong anti-war movement – a topic on which Norton-Taylor spends a whole chapter (and reported on extensively at the time).

The book examines the UK’s legislative framework related to secrecy, which is best exemplified by the passage of the Official Secrets Act one summer afternoon in 1911 when many MPs were ‘away on the grouse moors or fly fishing in the country’s rivers’ (p.118). The OSA was designed ostensibly to deal with the threat posed by German spies, but this was belied by its catch-all status criminalising the disclosure or reception of any official government information. The Act was reformed in 1989 but, as Norton-Taylor puts it, remains ‘a political weapon designed to frighten officials and journalists, a perpetual shadow hovering over their shoulders’ (p.127).

There is a particularly strong chapter titled ‘History Is An Official Secret’ referring mostly to secrets concerning British foreign policy. We’re often told that data released under freedom-of-information legislation and the traditional ‘thirty-year rule’ ought to be enough to guarantee our democratic rights to information. Norton-Taylor, however, highlights the scandal that, in even the most pallid form of democracy, release of official documents can be scuppered by civil servants ‘on the grounds that they contain “sensitive” material relating to national security’ or that ‘their disclosure would cause “substantial distress”’ to “persons affected by disclosure or their descendants”’ (p.145). Of course, the interpretation of ‘national security, sensitivity and substantial distress’ is in the hands of unelected officials and their political bosses. Examples of documents that have gone missing or been unceremoniously removed are those ‘describing how British forces were ordered to use gas against Iraqi dissidents, including Kurds, after the First World War’ as well as multiple files about British conduct in former colonies like Kenya and Malaysia.

The State of Secrecy catalogues how officials and politicians regularly lie to journalists or rather, following Winston Churchill, engage in ‘terminological inexactitude’ (p.4). In fact, language is key for state officials to ‘cover up, delay, obfuscate, stall, avoid commitment and bolster official secrecy’ (p. 93). Far from public inquiries being structured so as to illuminate abuses of power, Norton-Taylor suggests that the default position is often usually not to publish, as in the Chilcot Inquiry, where he points out that ‘Whitehall had the last word’ by including a passage, buried in the protocols, that where there was no agreement about ‘a form in which the information can be published, the inquiry shall not release that information into the public domain’ (p.107). Secrecy, not openness, is the default position of the British state.

Journalists and spies

The book is sub-titled ‘spies and the media in Britain’ but actually there is relatively little detailed analysis that expands on his initial reference to the ‘the limits of conventional journalism’ (p.xii). He does discuss the nefarious role of the respective Whitehall and MoD lobbies which often secure reporting that is favourable to the state, and focuses on the death of David Kelly and the subsequent Hutton Inquiry that investigated BBC claims that Blair’s government had deliberately ‘sexed up’ the dossier showing evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. For Norton-Taylor, this illustrates the ‘traditional Whitehall and Downing Street assumption that the media, especially the BBC, must unquestionably accept the word of the intelligence agencies, in this case MI6’ (p.23).

He spends more time, however, reflecting on his own (generally positive) time at the Guardian where he spent 43 years working under three editors, Alastair Hetherington, Peter Preston and Alan Rusbridger. However, like several other investigative reporters specialising in national-security issues, Norton-Taylor has since moved on, perhaps reflecting a new culture at the Guardian which is far more deferential to the security state. According to Mark Curtis and Matt Kennard of the excellent Declassified UK (an investigative reporting site specialising in UK foreign policy that Norton-Taylor now writes for), his generation of critical journalists have been replaced by ‘less experienced reporters with apparently less commitment to exposing the security state’. Revealingly, the Guardian has now taken up a seat on the D-Notice Committee, the ‘strange and uniquely British institution which journalists writing about defence, security and intelligence matters have to cope with’ (p.64). The committee places pressure on journalists not to write about matters which might compromise national security.

Norton-Taylor concludes that ‘Britain’s top security, intelligence and military figures have failed to tell truth to power for reasons of cowardice as well as convenience’ (p.312), and calls for an independent and emboldened media to ‘mount a sustained battle against an excess of official secrecy in the real interests … of national security’ (p.312). The problem is that, as Norton-Taylor himself acknowledges, most editors and senior journalists share – with the rare exception – the same interests as the politicians, generals, civil servants and security personnel whom they are supposed to be holding to account. Referring to ‘wrongdoings by agents of the state’ together with the ‘growing power of security and intelligence agencies’, the author admits that ‘neither Parliament nor MPs nor much of the media have had an interest in scrutinizing [these issues] effectively’ (p.xii).

National security or democracy

So there is a lot to learn here and a lot to recommend in The State of Secrecy. Crucially, however, it is not a critique of the intelligence services in and of themselves, but mainly of the opacity with how they operate. Norton-Taylor seems to consider this kind of secrecy as ‘counter-productive’ (p.30) more than fundamentally unethical. While the establishment may claim that it ‘bolsters security’, it can also ‘give an entirely false sense of security by covering up insecurity’ (p.310). He is closer to the view that ‘excessive secrecy is actually undermining national security rather than defending it since it is merely encouraging unhealthy cynical attitudes’ (p.138). This is very different to the notion that that ‘national security’ itself is a concept that involves the state managing dissent and maintaining control and that, therefore, secrecy is built into its very DNA. Calling for MI5 and MI6 to be more open is understandable but unachievable even if we now know the identities of their ‘Chiefs’.

Similarly, while the Ministry of Defence is the ‘villain’ of the piece, described by Norton-Taylor as ‘not fit for purpose’ (p.10), this is less so because of its role in a long history of imperialist invasions and occupations, but for its inefficiency, waste, mismanagement and inability to face up to the real dangers the country faces. He analyses in forensic detail the arms trade, export licences and the cynical deals with countries like Libya, Saudi Arabia and Qatar (though nothing is said about Israel) but this relates to a lack of ‘proper scrutiny’ (p.300) more than a basic opposition to the strategic interests pursued through these relationships.

The missing link here is the lack of a critique of the state itself in The State of Secrecy. While he argues that the ‘culture of secrecy is the root cause of many, perhaps most of Britain’s deep-seated ills’ (p.1), history suggests that it is the other way around: that secrecy is the logical result of an unaccountable state. It’s true that secrecy stifles democracy, but it seems also to be true that even the most liberal democracy stifles openness. It’s going to take more than Freedom of Information legislation or the repeal of the Official Secrets Act (as welcome as both of these would be) to force the state into the open.

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Des Freedman

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the co-author of 'The Media Manifesto' (Polity 2020, author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.

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