The UK’s role in selling arms to the Middle East is again in the spotlight. This excerpt from ‘The Silent State’ published this week in Open Rights Group’s online magazine goes into some of the reasons why having a public debate in Britain about our arms industry is nearly impossible due to a chronic lack of information.
While the state likes to keep all private citizens under surveillance, getting a staff directory of public officials is still all but impossible. The excerpt below from Chapter 4 of the book, tells the story of one reporter’s battle – the Guardian’s Rob Evans – for the staff directory of the department charged with granting arms export licenses.
Anonymity & the arms trade
Rob Evans wanted the staff directory of the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO), a hived-off part of the Ministry of Defence, which spends taxpayer money helping UK arms companies (predominantly BAE Systems) win contracts for the export of armaments. He wanted it for several reasons.
‘We were hearing a lot of allegations about corruption within DESO in relation to the arms industry,’ Rob told me. ‘The problem was you had to find out if the employee alleged to be accepting bribes from an arms company actually worked for DESO. There was no way to tell. In the absence of a staff directory we had to resort to, well, subterfuge. It was done in the public interest but in my view that’s wrong. Why should we have had to resort to subterfuge? All public officials should be named.’
The Data Protection Act is often used in the most ludicrous ways: reporters’ bylines blacked out and ministers’ names censored. If you’re a public official then suddenly your privacy rights are sacrosanct. DESO and the Ministry of Defence were none too keen to provide Rob with a copy of the directory, so from his desk at Guardian newspapers he filed a freedom-of-information request in January 2005.
The directory lists staff names, job titles, work addresses, work telephone numbers and email addresses. In February he received a ‘redacted’ or, in plain English, censored version. And when I say censored I mean heavily. You’ve likely seen the ‘redacted’ MPs’ expenses, but imagine something even more gratuitous. What Rob received was a staff directory with all the names of staff together with all their contact details removed. Even the main switchboard number was blacked out! Only titles remained and for staff based in Saudi Arabia even these were excised. As a staff directory it was pretty much useless, particularly if your purpose was to track staff movement through the revolving door that exists between DESO and the arms industry and vice versa.