One Hundred Years Of Secrecy

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20110816

Peter Hennessy, the leading Whitehall watcher, looks at government secrecy.

Kicking off Radio 4's Secret Britain series, Peter Hennessy, the leading Whitehall-watcher, tells the story of the Official Secrets Act and explores the tension between Britain's culture of state secrecy and more open government.

One hundred years ago, in the hot summer of 1911, Asquith's Government exploited a scare about German spies and a panic over a German gunboat in a Moroccan port to rush a new Official Secrets Act through parliament.

The measure was presented as being necessary for national security, but ministers seized their opportunity to extend the law much further.

The Act included a 'catch-all' section that forbade the unauthorized disclosure of anything about the government's work, including innocuous matters that posed no possible threat to national security.

Peter Hennessy explains why Britain developed a culture of state secrecy and shows how politicians kept politically inconvenient information secret.

He examines how reform of official secrets eventually came and explores the tension between the competing needs for secrecy that protects national security and more openness in a democracy.

Producer: Rob Shepherd.