Academics assess this week's revelations

January 7, 2000

Iain McLean, professor of politics at Oxford, believes that details of British diplomatic mishaps during its military intervention in Anguilla should have been made public much earlier.

"There was no reason to hide the information other than to save politicians embarrassment," he says.

McLean has argued that the current government's proposals for a freedom of information bill need to be much more radical. But he admits the culture of secrecy in officialdom is changing slowly. A few years ago, he secured the early release of information regarding the tribunal on the disaster at Aberfan, where 109 children died when a waste tip collapsed on their school in 1966.

Peter Hennessy, professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary and Westfield College, has been coming to the PRO in January for 25 years. He, too, says accessibility has improved. "The difference is huge. Much more information is being released now."

Richard Nicolson, editor of the Bulletin of Medical Ethics, wants to see some papers released earlier. "I would like to see information regarding a Department of Health debate 20 years ago, which showed that it was cheaper for the government to encourage smoking than to prevent it, (to be in the public domain now)."

On this week's disclosures, the reaction was mixed. Ian Poll, head of the College of Aeronautics at Cranfield University, says the decision to save Concorde from cancellation was the right one. "From a technological viewpoint, it was a major milestone in passenger aircraft."

Financially Concorde ran at a loss, but Poll argues this was due to the US's refusal, in the 1970s, to allow the aircraft access to the lucrative passage between London and New York. This, he says, led to a public perception that Concorde was a failure.

Poll says Tony Benn's backing for Concorde "sends Benn up in my estimation. He was absolutely right to champion a fantastic technological achievement."

Nicolson says the government was right to veto the transplantation advisory group's recommendation on organ donations. Had the suggestion been backed, "the revulsion would have thwarted the cause of organ transplants. The word 'grave-robbing' would have been used."

Michael Bird

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