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.
That said, one can only be struck by the banality and essential triviality of most of the information that was being collected and transmitted, little that could not be gleaned, much less expensively, from the better newspapers. One is struck, too, by the lack of selectivity or quality control in collection and analysis, the sheer overload of information, and wonders who has the time to read it all at the receiving end.
The wider issue is what hacking of this sort and the wider dissemination of the information so purloined will do to the way in which civil servants and diplomats do their jobs, and to the wider public interest. It is a sad, if unforeseen, consequence of the Freedom of Information Act that there is now less information to access. Civil servants have resorted to not writing down what should have been recorded, or to using Post-It notes, which can be stripped from files. Applied to diplomacy this leads to lack of documentation and an impoverishment of the archive which future historians will curse. In the short term, it discourages candour and honest expression of opinion.
It did not require electronic espionage to find the material to derail the aspirations of Senator David Norris in the race to the Aras, only a long memory and any old handbag to beat him about the ears. There is something very sad about having to watch an old friend digging his own grave, which is what David did in his Morning Ireland interview. I have to say that in the course of 10 years as a colleague in the Senate, I never heard anything from David Norris but the voice of reason and decency, compassion, concern for justice and human rights, and a voice for the underprivileged and oppressed in Ireland and across the world. He could be silly at times, but he was not alone in the Senate in that.
Norris has made his own distinctive and distinguished contribution to politics and public life. He deserves at least a shot at the Presidency, and I hope he gets it. Campaigning for the nomination may be his most difficult hurdle, and he may not ultimately be electable, but, in the year in which Joyce comes out of copyright, he would adorn the Office with wit and grace.
Which brings us to the problem of what people are campaigning for, as the field becomes more crowded. How does one campaign for a post which has neither executive power nor policy content? It follows that those who are promising to change the world, or the direction of public policy or the face of Irish politics should begin by reading the Constitution. They will find there that the Office they seek is largely symbolic, bordering on the ritual, firmly restrained by the law from political activism.
The late and much respected Gordon Wilson once confided to me that the great thing about being an Irish senator is that the Americans do not know that you are not the sort of senator they think you are. The same could be said of the Irish Presidency.
There is much to be said, in the inter-regnum, of a complete rethink of the Office. Presidents Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson are very hard acts to follow, both, in their different ways, having extended the symbolic role of the Office as far as would seem constitutionally possible.
Without the need to change the Constitution, it is possible, in these straitened times, to think of a more modest establishment and a presidential salary which does not exceed that of the executive head of the US government, and which would recognise both the symbolic importance of the role and the lack of executive responsibility. Wow.