Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A victory for freedom of information in the UK

Five years ago, the British government went to war on the basis of a lie - Tony Blair's "dodgy dossier" which infamously claimed that Saddam Hussein could launch weapons of mass destruction against Britain "within 45 minutes". Ever since, people have sought to uncover the history of the dossier, to see where the lies came from. And now, thanks to the UK's Freedom of Information Act, they've been able to. Following a decision by the Information Tribunal, the British government has been forced to reveal the earliest draft of the dossier, revealing that most of its content was drafted not by intelligence professionals, but by a Foreign office spindoctor - explicitly contradicting Blair's efforts to hide behind the authority of the intelligence services. It also shows that - as suspected - the 45-minute claim was inserted later, almost certainly at the behest of Downing Street. Above all, it shows that the British government was dishonest from start to finish about the whole affair. Which is arguably the entire point of freedom of information legislation.

Obviously, this is a victory for those seeking to uncover the lies and deceptions around the Iraq war. But it's also a significant victory for freedom of information in the UK. The government had sought to withhold the draft on the basis that it would compromise the free and frank advice of officials, who might be less forthcoming if they thought their initial drafts would be released for public scrutiny. But the Information Tribunal ruled that those concerns were outweighed by the significant public interest in this case, in the process prising open a vital window on public affairs. This precedent will be used for years to come to examine the formulation of policy in the UK. This will no doubt make governments and officials uncomfortable, but as in New Zealand, the British political process will ultimately be better for it.

The draft dossier is here.