OPINION: Tabloid story sales offer little insight

We must surely have crossed an important line with the decision from the Ministry of Defence to allow those troops recently detained by Iran to sell their stories to the tabloids.

What­ever the public interest in their capture and the condit­ions of their detention these are serving service men and women, people who when they signed up agreed that secrecy would be part of their life. They willingly accepted there would be things about work and life they could not divulge.

Some of these restrictions would at times appear petty; others would be easily seen to be essential for the safety and security of operations. But who is to say when the petty might turn out to be important , or the other way round?

We are in dangerous waters when we decide for that the restrictions might on occasion be lifted. Perhaps though we should not be surprised. It was the golden rule of Whitehall that its senior members never lifted the veil on what went on in the corridors of power. But the Government has used spin remorselessly against the civil service, in effect naming and shaming those of whom ministers disapprove and in one case labelling a whole department "not fit for purpose."

So it was perhaps inevitable that the mandarins desire to kick back would mean that the vows of silence might crack, as they famously did a few weeks ago with Lord Andrew Turnbull's " Stal­inist" criticisms of Chancellor Gordon Brown. When those at the top set such an example, it is difficult to argue that the lower ranks must be trappists. What is bizarre however is that the public sector is loos­ening up just as the private sector is becoming more anally retentive.

There was a time not so long ago when it would be possible as a journalist to call any senior exec­utive in a company. Investment banks seem to have a blan­ket policy that no one is allowed to talk to the press without prior approval and the patt­ern is now wide­spread in business gener­ally. Clearly busi­ness life would be impossible if the equivalent of front line troops felt able to sell their secrets to the tab­loids, but there must be a happier med­ium than the path on which we are now set. The private sector clamming up just as the civil service become garrulous is too surreal to contemplate.

Anthony Hilton
is City commentator on London's Evening Standard

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