Blair regrets passing freedom of information law

November 17, 2011 - 1:05 AM
Access Denied Blairs Regret

ADVANCE FOR USE THURSDAY, NOV. 17, 2011 AND THEREAFTER - In this Friday, Sept. 2, 2011 photo, former Prime Minister Tony Blair speaks during an interview in London. Blair was once a leading advocate for the people's right to know what their government is doing behind closed doors. But even before Britain's law passed, he had hurriedly watered down his original plans and stalled the bill's progress. The former prime minister, who stood down in 2007, accepts that rules on access to information can help democracy, but he argues that they can also undermine government. Critics suspect that, in truth, his change of mind reflects an unease at the public response to the Iraq war, and his realization - seemingly shortly after he took office - that the information law could expose activities by his party that voters may find unacceptable. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

LONDON (AP) — Poised on the brink of power, Tony Blair made an impassioned vow: Britain's jealously-held culture of official secrecy would be dramatically swept away.

Fifteen years later, the country has a thriving right to information law, with almost 44,000 requests made last year, and recently announced it would accept demands for government data posted using Twitter. So former prime minister Blair must now reflect with pride on delivering his promise?

Not exactly.

"You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop," Blair wrote of himself in his autobiography "A Journey" last year, recalling his adoption of the law in 2005. "There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it."

Britain's experience gives a close-up view of how controversial freedom of information laws can be, at a time when they are spreading rapidly around the world.

Blair was once a leading advocate for the people's right to know what their government is doing behind closed doors. But even before Britain's law passed, Blair had hurriedly watered down his original plans and stalled the bill's progress. He added exemptions that mean records related to the Royal Family, international relations, national security, defense, government policy and the courts are routinely refused.

The ex-leader, who stood down in 2007, accepts that rules on access to information can help democracy, but he argues that they can also undermine government.

"You can't run government without being able to have confidential discussions with people on issues that are of profound importance," a rueful Blair told The Associated Press in an interview. "What happens in the end is that you make politicians very nervous of actually debating things honestly, because they're worried about what's going to happen when there's a FOI request."

Critics suspect that his change of mind reflects an unease at the public response to the Iraq war, and his realization — seemingly shortly after he took office — that the information law could expose activities by his party that voters may find unacceptable.

Blair suffered a series of embarrassing disclosures as a result of information requests, many of which were was used to scrutinize his contentious decision to join the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Responses to requests showed how advisers redrafted a dossier published to support Blair's case for invasion, and that scientific experts for the government actually supported estimates of civilian casualties which it publicly dismissed as inaccurate.

Files also have revealed Blair's frequent phone calls with Rupert Murdoch, a gushing note of congratulations sent to President George W. Bush on his 2000 election win and awkward discussions over a guest appearance on "The Simpsons." He acknowledged in his autobiography that he became worried about his party's "skeletons rattling around the cupboard," including allegations over the influence donors had on policy.

The law is a success by the numbers: Almost 60 percent of all requests made are granted, and more are approved following appeals to an ombudsman. Analysts insist there's little evidence that such laws curtail discussions or hinder officials from taking detailed notes. They also point to the fact that Britain's most sensitive documents on policy are already withheld from release.

"The problem isn't that these disclosures make frank discussions inside government harder, as Blair claims," said Maurice Frankel, director of Britain's Campaign for Freedom of Information. "It's that the disclosures make not telling the truth harder."