Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg

Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg
Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg © Gernot Keller, 2007
Blinkered Justice articles also appear on CrimeTalk and Government In The Lab

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Open secrets and the need to know

Reprieve protest during visit by President George W. Bush (c) art makes me smile
On a day when Wikipedia turned off its English language edition, in protest at the US Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), it is somewhat ironic the the UK government have pulled the plug on the Gibson inquiry.

Not that the inquiry was ever likely to reveal all. Many critics, including human rights organisations and lawyers, were going to boycott the inquiry in protest at the government's decision to hold much of it in secret.

The investigation is now going to focus on documents that were recently unearthed following the revolution in Libya. Would the UK government have ditched the Gibson inquiry right now had these papers not come to light? Following the investigation, is it really any more likely that we will ascertain the truth(s) regarding the UK's complicity in rendition and torture?

At every turn the UK government appears to have been unwilling to reveal the extent of their knowledge of rendition and torture. The case of Binyam Mohamed is especially relevant.

The UK government tried to stop the release of 'torture documents' that demonstrated their complicity in his torture, and when defeated in the High Court, they appealed. And lost.

All this was done in the name of 'national security', yet all the Judges decided that any threat to 'national security' was not serious. Which begs the age old question: in whose name is 'national security' being evoked?

Furthermore, the Judges ruled that there was overwhelming public interest in disclosing this material. Discourses of 'national security' and 'public interest' are not that far removed from similar, concurrent discussions on UK libel laws.

Ian Hislop (c) Nikki Montefiore
These laws have been criticised for denying freedom of expression and for permitting “libel tourism.”Anyone may be subject to legal action by the rich and powerful, individuals and multi-national corporations alike, if someone reads something critical of this person or organisation in the UK, regardless of where he, she, they or it reside.

As such, UK libel laws can be perceived as forms of 'individual security' and 'organisational security', protecting these private members of the public and commercial operations from scurrilous rumour and/or genuine criticism. Indeed, many powerful, wealthy individuals have used these laws to prevent stories being printed about their private lives, on grounds that it is not in the public interest.

Interestingly, the UK government is keen to change these laws as it is crushing freedom of expression in scientific and academic debate. The BBC reported that:
There will be a new requirement in the bill that a statement must have caused, or be likely to cause, substantial harm to someone's reputation, if it is to be considered defamatory.
Given the UK government's stance on renditions and torture, I find their position on libel laws quite hypocritical. As noted above, the UK government has sought legal means of gagging those that have criticised its means and methods of extracting information.

As with the wealthy, individual libel-seekers, these court cases cost money. Unlike the wealthy, individual libel-seekers, these court cases are paid for by the public. How much did it cost the UK government in their legal actions against Binyam Mohamed? 

Whilst the government is keen to raise the bar for those bringing libel cases against those that 'defame' them, the state will continue to act as Judge and Jury in its construction of public inquiries. Not only does it put an end to investigations when it chooses, as per Gibson, it also selects those that act as its arbiters.

I am not questioning the integrity of those that conduct such reviews, but with their selection comes the kudos of having been chosen, and the significant implications that this may have on a future career should they find something unpalatable and detrimental to their 'benefactor'. There are powerful, vested interests at stake here, something more than 'national security' and public interest.

Whilst some secrets have become public, in equal measure they are being silenced by those that have the power to do so. The key to resuscitating an open, truly democratic, UK is by opening up discussions on what constitutes public interest, so that we can then determine what 'national security' might mean.

For me, that interest means knowing what the UK has, or has not been, involved in, and acknowledging it. In knowing that we have nothing to hide, the UK government would actually make me feel more secure in my nation, and what it stands for. 

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