To be sure, all governments since the invention of papyrus have had cause to fear leaks, and all modern British governments have known that after 50, or 30, or 20 years most official paper will be released to the public. But when these documents were generated, their authors knew – or thought they knew – that, in principle, they were secure until that release. Their premature disclosure could not be ordered by an information commissioner or tribunal. Without such security, there can be no honesty. It is simple: if you fear your private communication will be laid before the world, you will write it quite differently, or not at all.
So the effect of FoI is to promote dishonesty and concealment. I pity any biographer of any prime minister from Tony Blair onwards. He or she will not be short of government paper. Thanks to the computer’s power of infinite reproduction and the advent of the email (to whose implications, by the way, FoI gave no thought), he will drown in material. Because of the cant in which modern administrative documents are expressed, words like “openness” and “transparency” will be spattered over thousands of pages. But there will be no such openness or transparency. The big decisions will all have been made in whispers in a corridor, or abbreviated in a text message. To find out what happened, the biographer will have to rely solely on the fallible memory of elderly ex-ministers and officials.