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Public interest is what the government says it is

Although we live in a democratic society which accepted the principles of human rights, like the freedom of information, there are still some significant loopholes. The government is by law admitted to keep information secret, for national safety.  Let’s have a look how it all began: The Official Secrets Act.

In July 1984 Clive Ponting, at that time a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) sent two documents to Labour MP Tam Dalyell concerning the sinking of the Argentine navy warship General Belgrano.

The case was a key incident in the Falklands War in 1982. The documents revealed that the General Belgrano had been sighted a day earlier than officially reported, and that it was steaming away from the Royal Navy taskforce. And most importantly it was outside the exclusion zone, when the cruiser was attacked and sunk.

On the right – The news coverage of The Sun after the attacks

Clive Ponting admitted revealing the information and was charged with a criminal offence under Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act of 1911. His main defence was that the matter was in the public interest. Ponting was acquitted by the jury in 1985. The verdict came despite the judge’s direction that “the public interest is what the government of the day says it is”.

The verdict was seen as a landmark in British legal history and raised controversial debates of the public’s right to know. The Observer began to serialize Ponting’s book “The Right to Know: The inside story of the Belgrano affair.”

The Conservative government reacted by tightening up UK secrets legislation, introducing the Official Secrets Act 1989. This enactment dismantled the defence that a release of information could be seen to be in the public interest, and therefore justified. Since then it was taken that public interest actually is “what the government of the day says it is.”

The Official Secrets Act made it possible for the government to use spy strategies such as phone tapping on citizens or groups, like ngo’s. Although Freedom of information is a basic democratic principle, the government seems to disagree that it should be applied on themselves.

Instead of advocating the investigation of internal crimes, the government seeks to protect itself by tools of a totalitarian regime, which are undermining human rights of privacy, freedom of information and freedom of expression.

As the term says, the public interest should be concerned about public interests and not governmental interests or warfare strategies.