‘A popular government, without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and the people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.’ James Madison, USA President 1822. (quoted in ‘The Right to Know: The Inside Story of the Belgrano Affair’ by Clive Ponting, 1985)
Civil servant, Falklands War whistleblower, writer and historian who died aged 74 on 28 July, was perhaps one of the outstanding 20th century campaigners against official secrecy. In 1984 he leaked documents to Labour MP Tam Dalyell, about the sinking of the Argentinian light cruiser the General Belgrano in the south Atlantic, during the Falklands War in 1982 with the loss of some 323 lives. Dalyell, a Scottish MP, was a member of a Commons’ committee investigating the affair. The government had insisted that the cruiser was a threat to the British, although it was heading away from the Task Force and well outside the British imposed exclusion zone around the Falkland Islands and was travelling back towards Argentina. Ponting’s action exposed the government lies and cover up. The following year he was sensationally acquitted by a jury (against the wishes of the judge, Anthony McCowan) of breaching the Official Secret Act. Under the Act it was then permitted to release government information if it was in the ‘interests of the state’ to do so. This was at the heart of Ponting’s defence. The judge however believed that the ‘interests of the state’ were the same thing as the interests of the government of the day and in the absence of the jury told the lawyers so. However, on advice from ‘higher up’ he decided not to give his opinion to the jury but the story was printed in The Observer and the jury of course got to hear of it. This ‘public interest defence’ was removed in the 1989 Official Secrets Act.
His trial was described by his counsel Brian Raymond as ‘the most political trial of this century’. The best description of these events can be found in Ponting’s book ‘The Right to Know: The Inside Story of the Belgrano Affair’. He describes the book, published in 1985, as being about official secrecy, its history, the circumstances that led up to his own trial and the future of official secrecy and the debate about freedom of information.
The Act (then the 1920 Act) was not popular with Sir Winston Churchill who during 1930s received and used leaked documents and material information about German re-armament from Sir Desmond Morton a high ranking military and government official and used the information as part of his campaign exposing the rise of fascism and Hitler.
Churchill declared that ‘The Official Secrets Act was devised to protect the national defences and ought not to be used …to shield Ministers who have strong personal interests in concealing the truth…’ (House of Commons debate on the Official Secrets Act, 30 June 1938).
Born in April 1946 and an only child, Clive Ponting was brought up in a quite middle class suburb of Bristol. From Bristol Grammar School he went to Reading University to read History where he got ‘a first’ and subsequently decided on a Civil Service career, joining the Ministry of Technology in August 1970. Although that ministry was quickly broken up by the new Heath Conservative government he progressed well. In 1979 caught the attention of the new Tory prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who was waging a campaign on ‘Whitehall waste’ endearing himself to her with a scheme to rationalise food supply for the armed forces, saving £12m immediately and £3m thereafter. The following year he was awarded the OBE. He then became head of a naval department at the defence ministry with the grade of assistant secretary. Michael Heseltine, with whom he clashed over the Belgrano affair, had become defence secretary in 1983. He referred the leak from Tam Dalyell (who had given it to the Tory chair of the investigating committee who then passed it onto Heseltine) to the police and insisted that the leaker should be traced and prosecuted!
After his Old Bailey trial, Ponting made a new career as a historian and writer. As Reader in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Wales at Swansea, he exposed the myth of Britain’s finest hour in ‘1940: Myth and Reality’ (1990), and a biography of Winston Churchill in 1993. Noted for his revisionist histories that have challenged orthodox views he wrote some 18 books, the last in 2007 ‘A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilisations’.
In his Guardian obituary (6 August 2020) of Ponting, journalist David Leigh wrote: ‘What has not been disclosed until now is that Ponting also went on to expose one of Britain’s most unsavoury cold war cover-ups – the 1952 attempt to develop bioweapons, during which a trawler off the Hebrides was accidentally doused with plague bacteria. All files on the incident were destroyed, except for a single highly classified folder, which Ponting discovered three decades later, locked in his Ministry of Defence safe.’ The story (not attributed to Ponting) was printed in The Observer in July 1985.
But I’ll leave the last words to Clive Ponting himself as broadcast in BBC Radio 4’s ‘Last Word’ on 14 August. “The British State is completely amoral often engaged in criminal activity which is covered up, but it lives with a degree of hypocrisy that it isn’t amoral, but it’s a moral institution, which is the last thing it is.”