Friday 19 January 2018

Maurice Hayes: WikiLeaks revelations will only drive greater secrecy by diplomats

Milton's great tract, 'Areopagitica', stands as the foundation text of the case for freedom of the press in modern democracies. If quotations are not framed on the walls of editorial offices, they are at least embedded in the collective memory. It always sounds impressive in the face of threats of press censorship, prior restraint, banning orders or super-injunctions.

What, I wonder, would John Milton, have made of Wiki-Leaks? For Milton, the secretary to the Commonwealth and the diplomat, information was something to be as a basis for rational debate and policy-making, not as manure to be spread on a hotbed of gossip and innuendo. This Milton would have been hard-pressed to defend the proposition that all public business should be done in the full glare of publicity or that diplomacy did not at times require a veil of secrecy, or that civil servants should not be able to give advice in confidence.

It may be unfashionable to mention ethics, but, as Margaret Thatcher might have put it: "Theft is theft, is theft." If somebody showed up at a newspaper office with a bundle of papers, which he confessed to having burgled from an embassy, there can be few editors who would touch them with a barge-pole. And yet what is hacking but breaking and entry and the theft of property in the form of information, using sophisticated electronic techniques.

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