Festival of Ideas May 2017
Britain, Torture and Official Secrets
In 1889 the first Official Secrets Act was passed, creating offences of ‘disclosure of information’ and ‘breach of official trust’. It limited and monitored what the public could, and should, be told. Since then nearly a hundred related statutes have passed into law and a culture of secrecy has flourished. From the vast paper archives amassed during the colonial era to the electronic data captured and stored today, the state has been meticulous in recording its own activities and those of its citizens, and equally meticulous in ensuring that many of these records remain hidden. As successive governments have been selective about what they choose to share with the public, we have been left with a distorted and incomplete understanding, not only of the workings of the state, but of our nation’s culture and its past.
Ian Cobain, author of Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture, offers a fresh appraisal of some of the key moments in British history since the end of the Second World War, including the measures taken to conceal the existence of Bletchley Park and its successor, GCHQ, for three decades; the unreported wars fought during the 1960s and 1970s; the hidden links with terrorist cells during the Troubles; the sometimes opaque workings of the criminal justice system; the state’s peacetime surveillance techniques; and the convenient loopholes in the Freedom of Information Act.
Drawing on previously unseen material and rigorous research, Cobain reveals how a complex bureaucratic machine has grown up around the British state, allowing governments to evade accountability and their secrets to be buried.
In partnership with Bristol & Bath Freedom from Torture Group.
Ian Cobain has been a journalist since the early 1980s and is currently an investigative reporter with the Guardian. He has won a number of awards for his journalism, including the Martha Gelhorn Prize and the Paul Foot Award. He has also won several Amnesty International media awards. His first book, Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture (2012) won the Paddy Power Total Politics Award for Debut Political Book of the Year. The History Thieves: Secrets, Lies and the Shaping of a Modern Nation is his latest book. Follow him on Twitter