What Lies in the Public Interest? A Legal History of Official Secrets in Britain

  • Barbara Hocking


This paper focusses upon the history, operations and ambit of the United Kingdom's Official Secrets legislation. Through a critical appraisal of the background and uses of the legislation, broader political and legal assertions are advanced concerning the management of particular sorts of information, particularly under the Thatcher administration. It is suggested that the breadth of useage to which the law has been put, means that the term, official secrets cannot be conceptualised narrowly in relation to the activities of the United Kingdom government. In summary, what the paper suggests is that where the framework of the law is technically "what lies in the public interest," a more accurate interpretation of the use of the law might be to question "what lies" have been told to justify the use of the law in troubled political times. Although this paper does not attempt an exhaustive analysis of the use of the law in relation to the official information of the United Kingdom government, it is asserted throughout that those cases which have been examined exemplify the problematic nature of the notion of public interest and the government interest. It would appear that the British government has resorted to the law as a means of controlling political and official information (between which there is often an uneasy elision) more readily than the government in Australia. Britain has exemplified in this context what Professor Finn has referred to as "public interest paternalism." Indeed, it has been suggested that Britain has developed an obsessive official secrecy mindset. "No other Western democracy is so obsessed with keeping from the public, information about its public servants, or so relentless in plumbing new legal depths to staunch leaks from its bureaucracy."
Oct 30, 1993
How to Cite
HOCKING, Barbara. What Lies in the Public Interest? A Legal History of Official Secrets in Britain. QUT Law Review, [S.l.], v. 9, p. 31-60, oct. 1993. ISSN 2201-7275. Available at: <https://lr.law.qut.edu.au/article/view/368>. Date accessed: 01 feb. 2021. doi: https://doi.org/10.5204/qutlr.v9i0.368.
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