It’s not often that a cause that unites Jeremy Corbyn on the hard left of the Labour Party and David Davis on the libertarian right of the Conservative Party (although the government’s attempts to push through 42 days detention without charge forged some strange alliances).
But the arrest of Damian Green, the Conservative spokesman on immigration, for allegedly receiving leaked document has provoked widespread anger in Westminster. In a press release issued this afternoon Corbyn described Green’s arrest by counterterrorism officers, his detention for nine hours and searches of five addresses as an “abuse of time and expense in our democratic society”.
Davis likened the government’s behaviour to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, which may be a little over the top, but the news has certainly sent a chill through the journalistic community, which relies on MPs to act as a protective bulwark in such cases.
The civil service whistleblower is the lifeblood of democracy and opposition MPs are essential conduits for leaked information that ministers would prefer to keep to themselves. This does not mean that MPs should have total immunity from the law or that civil servants should be free to leak at will. But it is right that there should be special protection for both when the disclosures are in the public interest.
Damian Green put it rather well himself when he said: “In a democracy, opposition politicians have a duty to hold the Government to account. I was elected to the House of Commons precisely to do that and I certainly intend to continue doing so.”
As a serial disseminator of leaked government information myself, I find the latest development extremely worrying. In the cases of Katharine Gun, the GCHQ whistleblower who revealed a US plan to fix the United Nations security council vote for a second resolution on the Iraq war and Derek Pasquill, the Foreign Office official who disclosed a series of documents on radical Islam, MPs themselves were not the recipients of leaks. But it was essential that I was able to discuss the disclosures with them in order to inform them about the issues raised. In one case, I had lengthy discussions with an opposition home affairs spokesman about leaked Foreign Office documents: after the Damian Green arrest, he would be strongly advised against such action in future.
In the end, without parliamentary protection, journalists and whistleblowers will be left on their own to face the full force of the law. I sincerely hope that wasn’t the intention when the arrest of Damian Green was authorised because the consequences will be the further erosion of press freedom and the liberty of the individual in the face of an increasingly authoritarian state.
Martin Bright, the Political Editor of the New Statesman, is writing in his personal capacity
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