Thu, 18 April 2024

Newsletter sign-up

Subscribe now
The House Live All
By Lord Wallace of Saltaire
Press releases

The Mountbatten diaries: a lesson in censorship and abuse of power

1947: Lord and Lady Mountbatten with Muhammad Ali Jinnah | Alamy

3 min read

The personal papers of Earl Mountbatten and his wife Edwina have finally been published, leaving me none the wiser as to why they were withheld – and with sizeable legal costs

The House magazine kindly allowed me to write last year of my efforts to secure the release of the diaries and letters of Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten, which had been purchased by Southampton University for £2.8m in 2011, using public funds and the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, but which had never been opened.

In December 2019 the Information Commissioner issued a decision notice compelling Southampton University to make the diaries and letters available. Southampton and the Cabinet Office, which claimed a stake under a ministerial direction, appealed the decision and the hearing was held in November last year, with the tribunal judgment recently announced. The ministerial direction was withdrawn as an argument before the hearing and its genesis remains a mystery. None of my Freedom of Information (FOI) requests found a department prepared to take responsibility for it.

The hearing was, in many ways, academic, as Southampton had quietly made 99 per cent of the diaries – more than 30,000 pages – available on its website before the hearing. The material that they had kept closed for a decade and fought so hard to prevent being made publicly available proved to be entirely innocuous.

There was little for the tribunal to do except apply FOI exemptions on the collection and adjudicate on just over 100 redactions – some a single word. The Cabinet Office in a recent statement claimed that the only redactions imposed were under data protection. In fact, they asked for a reference in Edwina’s 1947 private diary to the Pakistan leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah to be redacted, though her views of him are well-known, on the grounds that it would damage Anglo-Pakistan relations. They also imposed a redaction on the initials of a Second World War organisation, on grounds of national security, even though the P organisation is well-known.

Parliamentarians have been crucial in exposing this scandal

Even though I had succeeded in securing the release of 99 per cent of the closed material and the behaviour of both Southampton University and the Cabinet Office had been totally unreasonable – with delayed responses, obfuscation and incomplete responses to statutory requests and the ICO at one point threatening contempt of court proceedings. My application for costs was dismissed, leaving me with a legal bill of £460,000 – only £60,000 of which was raised from the crowd-funding site CrowdJustice. I still owe more than £50,000.

Parliamentarians have been crucial in exposing this scandal, especially Lord Owen, Julian Lewis, Dan Carden and Chris Evans, and I would be grateful for further support in holding Southampton and the Cabinet Office to account through Parliamentary Questions etc. It is clear FOI is being abused by public bodies to the detriment of transparent government – with the result that our history is being censored.

Almost £3m was spent buying the diaries and letters for the nation, and more than £1m now has been spent trying to suppress them, though neither the Cabinet Office nor Southampton will answer questions on the cost of their litigation.

One battle has been won, but there is still much to do.

Andrew Lownie is a historian, literary agent and author of The Mountbattens: Their Lives And Loves. Disclosure: he represents the Editor-in-Chief of The House as his literary agent.

PoliticsHome Newsletters

Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.