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The mystery of the missing Mountbatten diaries

The mystery of the missing Mountbatten diaries
7 min read

In a David verses Goliath legal battle, I have been fighting the establishment for the release of the diaries and correspondence of Earl Mountbatten and his wife Edwina. I hope members of both Houses will join me in trying to uncover the truth - and stop this censorship and abuse of power.

For the last four years I have been locked in a marathon legal battle with the University of Southampton and the Cabinet Office for the release of the diaries of “Dickie” and Edwina Mountbatten and the correspondence between them.

The letters and diaries, extensively quoted in their official biographies by Philip Ziegler and Janet Morgan and open to researchers before 2010, were offered on open sale by the Mountbatten family a decade ago and might well have ended up in a private collection or foreign university.

The University of Southampton, where the papers had been on loan since the 1980s, raised £4.5m partly through the Acceptance in Lieu scheme and partly from grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Hampshire County Council, to buy them.

Their fundraising was done on the basis that these were important historical sources and would be “freely available to all”. The Acceptance in Lieu scheme also stresses that the deal is made on the basis of public access.

I was therefore surprised to discover that the diaries and letters were not available to researchers, and my requests to see them were denied by the university – but also that the very archivist whose suggestion to the Cabinet Office that they be closed when they had arrived at Southampton had also proposed some years later that he edit them himself for publication next year.

My attempts to discover what happened have not been satisfactory. Both the University of Southampton and the Cabinet Office have been evasive and cursory; they have repeatedly missed statutory, regulatory and self-imposed deadlines for responding and ignored correspondence from me, my lawyers and the ICO to the extent that the ICO was forced to take the unusual step of issuing an Information Notice and then the unprecedented step of commencing High Court proceedings for contempt to compel the university to respond.

I believe the Mountbatten diaries are an invaluable source for twentieth century historians

In December 2019 the ICO finally ordered the university to release all the diaries and letters. That decision was appealed by the university and the Cabinet Office and a hearing, repeatedly delayed by both of them, will be heard in November. The Cabinet Office and the university are fielding a team of QCs against my small legal representation in a David versus Goliath case.

So far the case has cost me in legal costs my life savings – some £250,000 – to try to access letters and diaries purchased with public monies on the basis they should be available for research to all. No private citizen should have been forced to take such action. Though my Mountbatten book has been published, I continue the fight in support of the principles of academic freedom, access to archives and against the abuse of state power.

Last month my money ran out and I was forced to crowdfund £50,000 to cover costs for the November hearing. My appeals to organisations, such as Index on Censorship and the Royal Society of Literature, who one might think would support such a campaign in some form, if not financially, were ignored. Donors shied away, worried about upsetting the government or the Royal Family.

It was only after media interest that I was able to raise the £50,000 required, notably from readers of The Telegraph and a top up from David Elstein, former chair of openDemocracy. Approaches to the chairs of relevant All Party Parliamentary Groups went unanswered.

It was two Labour MPs and a Conservative who came to my rescue. Chris Evans wrote to Michael Gove seeking a meeting on the case. A month later he is still waiting. Dan Carden asked the Cabinet Office two parliamentary questions: “For what reason his department has prevented release of Lord Mountbatten’s diaries” and to “publish the (a) amount and (b) breakdown of costs incurred by the government to date in respect of preventing the release of the personal diaries and correspondence of the 1st Earl and Countess Mountbatten of Burma”.

No answer to the second and in response to the first he was told that there was a programme of release “in line with undertakings given by Earl Mountbatten in 1969 on the publication of the archive”.

No undertakings were ever given by Mountbatten with regard to the private diaries and letters as they were not public documents; Edwina was never a public official and the sensitive material relating to the Royal Family had already been deposited in the Royal Archives. It is my view the Cabinet Office was misleading Parliament.

Julian Lewis pressed the Cabinet Office on the issue with further questions such as an explanation of the supposed “undertakings” and to expand on the claim there was a programme of release. The Cabinet Office’s response was to say it would not comment on ongoing legal proceedings. He has now circulated an EDM which I hope Members of Parliament will support.

Why is the Cabinet Office trying to censor our history and entering into cosy arrangements with the University of Southampton to the exclusion of other researchers? What right does it have to control the private letters and diaries which have nothing to do with it but are owned by the university – the secret Ministerial Direction often quoted in fact requires Southampton to give public access to all the items in the Mountbatten Archive other than those “official” papers “closed” under the old agreements.

What is in this couple’s personal diaries and letters that is so sensational to justify the Cabinet Office racking up such a large legal bill? Estimates for the four year battle are more than £1m of taxpayers’ money. Is trying to suppress private diaries and letters – some from a century ago – and bought with public funds, really what governments should be doing? 

Why has it been so uncooperative, not just with me and my lawyers but also the ICO and the courts – simply not responding to important requests for information, only partially releasing material, obscuring the genesis of the Ministerial Direction? A failure to comply with my subject access request under the Data Protection Act led to the Cabinet Office – that is, the taxpayer – having to pay my associated legal costs.

The University of Southampton has questions to answer too. Why is it blocking access to archive material which, on its own claims, is of international historical importance, purchased with public money and for which public tax income was forfeited? Why is it seemingly censoring private letters and diaries ostensibly on behalf of the government for which there is no legal justification in what appears an unquestioning relationship between an academic institution and the State? 

And what about the fundraising campaign? Did Hampshire County Council realise that the £100,000 it gave had not resulted in all the papers being made available? It certainly appears that the National Heritage Memorial Fund board, which gave almost £2m, was not made aware that significant parts of the archives would not be accessible to the public.

I believe the Mountbatten diaries are an invaluable source for twentieth century historians and important principles are at stake relating to censorship and abuse of power. I do hope members of both Houses will join me in trying to uncover the truth of the missing Mountbatten diaries. 

Disclosure: Andrew Lownie has represented the editor-in-chief of this magazine as his literary agent

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