Little Known British tradition - secrecy. Britain, for all its history of democracy, is a very secretive society - the most secret in the Western world, according to some prominent Britons. The British public has no `right to know,' no right to personal tax records, to children's school records, or even to some of the most basic information about government activities. Today, the blunderbuss that enforces much of this, the Official Secrets Act, is itself the focus of unaccustomed publicity.

UNTIL his picture popped up on the front pages of every Australian and British newspaper last month, he was a powerful, discreet, but essentially faceless civil servant in Her Majesty's government. Few Britons even knew who he was, or what he did. Even fewer could guess how much their individual rights and freedoms in one of the Western world's most secretive societies are indirectly shaped by this head of the British civil service.

Sir Robert Armstrong, Cabinet secretary and principal adviser to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, has every reason to prefer a low profile. As Britain's most senior civil servant, he has an almost unparalleled knowledge of British Cabinet secrets and intelligence operations. He wants to make sure they stay secret.

That's why he has been taking a leading role in his government's efforts to thwart disclosures in Australia by former MI5 (British secret service) agent Peter Wright, who lives in Tasmania. Referring to the Australian court case, a British government source says: ``We are pursuing a point of principle. The principle is that of lifelong confidentiality for those who serve in government.''

Sir Robert's defense of secrecy is symptomatic of the whole apparatus of government in Britain - a nation where information is probably more zealously guarded than in any other Western democracy. Roy Jenkins, a former home secretary and chancellor of the Exchequer in Labour governments, and a past president of the European Commission, is among those calling this country's government ``the most secretive in the Western world.'' No freedom of information BRITAIN, unlike the United States or its Commonwealth counterparts, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, has no Freedom of Information Act. Nor does Britain afford its citizens many of the information protections that are provided in other West European democracies.

Des Wilson, chairman of the Campaign for Freedom of Information and current president of the Liberal Party, claims that ``when it comes to the real information people need for democracy to really operate as it should, the situation is appalling and getting steadily worse. For instance, very little background information on government decisionmaking is available.''

There are some modest signs of change, some slight challenges to the country's long-accepted traditions of secrecy.

Next November, for instance, people will be given the right, under the Data Protection Act, to see some of the files on them held in computers. And some 150 members of Parliament, representing Conservative, Labour, Social Democratic, and Liberal Parties - but, significantly, not the Conservative government itself - are calling for the repeal of the Official Secrets Act's controversial Section 2, which forbids leaking any official information, however trivial. What they want in its place is a Freedom of Information Act with exemption clauses covering national security and privacy.

But Britain has a long way to go to catch up with its fellow Western democracies in this far-reaching area.

Anthony Sampson, whose ``Anatomy of Britain'' is regarded as something of a primer of contemporary Britain, wrote, ``Secrecy is one of the British obsessions, like class, which seems to express a deeper psychological need, as if it were a substitute for the mystery of a religion. Power in Britain originated in secrecy, as in America it thrived on publicity.''

Embarrassing setbacks in the British MI5 case in Australia have increased concern over Britain's obsession with secrecy and over the extraordinary lengths to which the government is prepared to go to protect itself it under the Official Secrets Act.

Despite much self-inflicted damage, the government feels that to be consistent in upholding confidentiality it has no alternative but to pursue its case. Critics charge that the government's tactics work against its own interests by attracting attention to what it is trying to hide.

In addition, Mr. Wilson maintains, secrecy can be costly, because without public accountability, corruption and waste are more easily concealed. The big issue of secrecy in Britain today, he says, is not just over what happens between Westminster and Whitehall, the centers of parliamentary and bureaucratic power; it is the way secrecy ``affects people in everyday life. It's the extent to which secrecy makes it impossible for individuals to represent themselves at the local level.''

In Britain you have no more right to your medical records than to your child's school records. If you want to find out why your mortgage was turned down, or if you have a quarrel with the insurance company, the files are off limits. Clients of social workers have no right of access to extensive files kept on them. The same is true of tenants of local housing authorities. As a result, they are often unable to check on the accuracy of such records.

Archy Kirkwood, a Liberal member of Parliament, plans to introduce a ``private member's bill'' that, if passed, would give people the right to inspect and correct personal files held on them by doctors, employers, and local authorities.

Another area ``bedeviled with secrecy,'' according to Wilson, is the environment. The location of some 2,000 major hazard sites are regarded as official information. Because of that, people living in those areas cannot be informed of potentially dangerous chemical hazards.

Two years ago, Sir Richard Southwood, chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, claimed secrecy was the No. 1 obstacle to better environmental protection in Britain.

Local water authorities, for instance, meet in secret. As such, they have no accountability to the public, even though the public pays water rates (taxes) and even though these authorities are responsible for such critical areas as public health, safety, and the building of reservoirs and sewage works.

On seemingly innocuous topics, the government can still plead privileged information. A citizen's request for a report on bicycle safety, for instance, was turned down by the Ministry of Transport on the grounds that the information was ``restricted.'' In 1979 the government refused to answer parliamentary questions on such mundane issues as agricultural workers' wages, forecasts of changes in food prices, and day-to-day matters of the agricultural and fish marketing boards. Secrecy at odds with democracy? THERE are now more than 100 statutes that make disclosure of such official information a criminal offense. Wilson says such secrecy has become institutionalized over the years.

But he also says that the British public shares some of the blame.

``People learn to live with what they're used to,'' he says. ``I go out and give talks to groups around the country. I tell them, `I can't believe your docility.'''

The impression of Britain as a society more secretive than other comparable democracies is at odds with the country's reputation as a liberal democracy. Britain not only is the ``Mother of Parliaments,'' but it also laid the foundations for representative democracy and individual liberty with the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215.

Roy Jenkins, an erudite and urbane politician, and one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), has an explanation for this apparent contradiction: ``It's partly because on constitutional and institutional matters, this country got peculiarly stuck in the form of government peculiar to the end of the last century,'' he said in an interview at his office close to the Houses of Parliament.

``Our constitutional thinking is very much founded on the view most clearly and most seminally promulgated by [English jurist Albert] Dicey in the '70s and '80s of the last century in which he promulgated and took pride in the absolute sovereignty of Parliament,'' he says. ``This belief in the absolute sovereignty of the British Parliament fits extremely uncomfortably with our subscribing to any international human rights conventions, be it the UN or the Council of Europe expressing itself through the Strasbourg Court.''

An ``unwillingness,'' as he puts it, to introduce any external law means that Britain has not followed through on many of the contemporary pieces of human rights legislation - including equality of race and the rights of immigrants - that have been established in other democracies such as the US.

The inadequate protection of the rights of individuals means that Britain has been arraigned more frequently before the European Court than its European partners have.

``We lead Europe in the amount of work we provide for international human rights lawyers - as indeed we do in the size of our prison population, the Turks having given up that race in despair,'' said Roy Jenkins in a much quoted speech at the SDP conference in September.

It is because of the supremacy of Parliament - in which all power, both executive and legislative, is concentrated - that the prime minister resists amending or scrapping Section 2, which is the controversial aspect of the Official Secrets Act. Section 1, which deals with espionage, is not considered contentious. The prime minister argues that a Freedom of Information Act would reduce the parliamentary accountability of ministers. A Fifth Amendment country MOREOVER, Britain does not have a system of checks and balances such as that in the US. The closest Britain comes to it is the House of Lords, which in recent years has shown a notable degree of independence from the House of Commons, despite its modest real power. The gusts of reform that can periodically blow through the US judiciary have no British equivalent. There is nothing in Britain comparable to the US Supreme Court, which can make landmark decisions in such prominent areas as schools, busing, and rights of minorities.

Nor, as Sir William Rees-Mogg, chairman of the Arts Council and a former editor of The Times (London), points out, does freedom of the press rank as high in the hierarchy of liberties here as it does in the US.

``We are a Fifth Amendment country and they [the US] are a First Amendment country,'' says Sir William, emphasizing the British tendency to stress withholding information, compared with the importance of free speech in the US.

The potential for an adversarial relationship between the news media and government is possibly greater in Britain if only because of the government's considerable hold on information. As Wilson puts it: ``Information is power.''

Past Labour governments have been no less critical than Conservative governments in charging the British Broadcasting Corporation with bias.

For instance, the Conservative Party charged that BBC coverage of the US raid on Libya was biased; the BBC vigorously denied this. But the BBC's defense was weakened by a damaging libel case brought against it by two Conservative members of Parliament.

And the BBC's vulnerability to government pressure was evidenced when it was discovered that an agent of MI5 was ensconced in a small room at the BBC busily checking candidates for senior BBC positions.

While people have long had the right to vote in Britain, they do not have the ``right to know.'' When pressed during the MI5 trial as to whether the British public had the right to know - a cherished American principle - a Downing Street official answered robustly, ``To hell with the public's right to know.'' In this official's view, what the public really should be concerned about was the ``security of the state, not in indulging a secret agent.''

As if to reinforce the point of the supremacy of government, the Downing Street official laid down what is a truism about the government's right to privileged information: ``There is no freedom of information in this country. There is no right to know.'' Official Secrets' Section 2 THE government's principal weapon for safeguarding secrecy, and for penalizing the officials and the reporters who contravene it, is Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act of 1911 - the product of spy mania at the time when Britain became alarmed at the rise of German militarism. An imprecise weapon, likened more to a rusty old blunderbuss than a modern Armalite rifle, Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act has produced surprisingly few convictions. But its effect is largely intimidatory.

Asked if it affected even the most senior civil servants, Sir Burke Trend, then the Cabinet secretary, appearing in 1971 before the Franks Committee, set up to look into Section 2, replied, ``... you are conscious at the back of everything you say and do all day long there is this tremendous sanction.''

Although Section 2 now is regarded as largely unenforceable, it can strike with quite unusual severity. In 1984, Sarah Tisdall, who worked in the Foreign Office, was not only fired but also prosecuted as a criminal and sentenced to six months' imprisonment for leaking information - even though the court declared that her actions did not threaten national security.

Yet, in recent years Section 2 has become increasingly discredited.

When asked recently on television whether Section 2 wasn't ``a reprehensible act,'' Sir Patrick Nairne, the permanent secretary from 1975 to 1981, replied, ``Almost everybody accepts that it is.''

The difficulty, he said, is deciding what would replace it.

Previous Labour and Conservative governments, when in opposition, have pledged to reform the legislation. But such enthusiasm seems to evaporate on taking office.

Sir William Rees-Mogg says there is no question the Official Secrets Act is ``a bad act.''

But he also indicated that its terms of reference were so broad as to blunt its effectiveness.

``Juries,'' he points out in the paneled library of his antiquarian publishing company on Pall Mall, ``won't convict under the Official Secrets Act unless they feel there is moral as well as technical guilt.'' Nor, he adds, will they convict when there is ``no element of espionage and the motive is one of conscience.''

That apparently was the reason for the jury acquittal of a senior civil servant, Clive Ponting, who was charged under Section 2 for leaking information to a Labour member of Parliament, Tam Dalyell, about the sinking of the Argentine cruiser Belgrano during the Falklands war.

The government was outraged that Mr. Ponting, who as a civil servant had taken an oath of loyalty to the government, had leaked information to a member of Parliament. But Ponting, who won his argument on the basis that the minister he was serving had lied, claimed he had a higher responsibility. He argued his accountability in this case was to Parliament, not to the minister.

The case disturbed the government lest it give license to any aggrieved civil servant to break his oath of loyalty and disclose sensitive information.

Yet the Ponting case did more than anything to discredit Section 2. As far back as 1972 the Franks Commission argued that any law that impinged on the freedom of information in a democracy should be much more tightly drawn. ``We found Section 2 ... a mess,'' the report said.

As a former editor, Sir William says he is not in favor of having a new Official Secrets Act, precisely because the existing provisions are too wide and loose.

He cautions that a much narrower definition, specifying what activities of government should be secret, might be much more dangerous to the press.

As it is, the media in Britain are generally more inhibited than their counterparts in the US in what they can report.

But many Britons do not necessarily feel the American experience is an improvement. Much of the reporting of court cases in the US, for instance, is viewed by newspaper editors here as prejudicial. Also in contrast with the US, laws governing libel are far more stringent in Britain. According to a US diplomat in London, ``malice has to be proved [in the US]. It's not the case here.''

Nor are the media in Britain, despite their being vigorous and well informed, able to retain quite the same degree of independence as the US media. Much of the US media, on principle, will not accept ``junkets'' (expenses-paid trips sponsored by government or commercial organizations).

The British media are seldom so squeamish. A source in one important British ministry says some British reporters wouldn't think of going on a trip unless their expenses were met by the organizers.

At times, too, the British press is charged with doing the government's work for it - as a result of the so-called ``lobby'' system, a source of heated controversy recently. The new Independent newspaper and the Guardian refused to be part of the system, because they feel it compromises their journalistic integrity. The lobby system UNDER the lobby system, selected journalists are given off-the-record briefings that enable government officials to disseminate information while, under the rules, remaining anonymous. For instance, when the phrase ``it is understood'' appears in newspapers here in reference to an important government proposal, it almost certainly indicates that the information is from a leading civil service spokesman for the prime minister. Attributed comments from leading government officials are comparatively rare.

The British government defends its system, saying there would be less news and it would be blander if there were only on-the-record briefings. Others sharply criticize the lobby system. Peter Kellner, political correspondent of the New Statesman and frequent commentator on radio, television, and in the ``quality'' press, likens the system to trading information on the black market, ``because the quality is uncertain, it takes place wholly outside the official market, and if it turns out to be bum material, you can't take it back.''

For Mr. Kellner there are two distinct dangers of the lobby system. First, he says the information imparted cannot be tested in open debate. Second, it enables ministers to avoid being challenged on what they are doing, while at the same time enabling the government to manipulate information that protects or advances its position. ``Removing the system,'' he contends, ``would force politicians to be more accountable as to what they say and make journalists work harder because under the lobby system material given out is uncheckable.''

The government's use of this system is often seen by freedom-of-information proponents as motivated less by a genuine desire to safeguard security than to protect itself from accountability. Critics also charge that excessive secrecy means keeping the public at arm's length. Kellner says it means:

``They, and only they, have the skill, and the knowledge, and the right to govern, and the very idea they should share information to the outside world runs counter to the view they alone know how to run the government sensibly and rationally.''

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