If you are attending a conference on freedom of information, secrecy, truth, lies and political spin, then the last thing you expect is for the Chatham House rules to be invoked.
And, much to my astonishment, that is what happened yesterday. Could there be any greater irony?
I challenged the reason for this during the question session. I pointed out that it didn’t make sense to discuss these important issues under those restrictive conditions. I explained I wanted to write about the events on my blog without fear of being tracked down and shot for revealing previously undisclosed secrets. To me, it was as good as being gagged.
One of the speakers on stage, Prof David Edgerton, gallantly replied that I could attribute his comments to him. And I was also told that I could attribute statements made by the speakers in their outline presentation, but nothing that arose from the ensuing debate, I guess that was a compromise, .but it still presents difficulties for a journalist.
It transpired that one speaker had specifically sought the Chatham House rules – Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s best known diplomat. I later asked him the reasons why. He said he was concerned about the way his comments would be interpreted. He told me he he had requested this condition in advance.
Other speakers were not so shy, Tony Benn laughed and said the rule was “utterly disgraceful” and would be taking no notice of it, Dr Hans Blix said he wasn’t worried either, and the former Cabinet Secretary and Master of Emmanuel College, Lord Wilson of Dinton, felt no hitherto unknown secrets had been disclosed during the day’s debate. Interestingly, Lord Wilson told me he enjoys reading blogs, I would love the chance to interview him for a post.
I can understand the reasons why Chatham House rules have a role to play in certain circumstances, but felt it was not appropriate on a day when we were debating freedom of information, there was certainly no secret information to protect.
For clarification, what happens if you ignore them? Has anyone broken the Chatham House rules and faced any consequences? Is it something you would do?