Freedom to expose
Do historians and biographers have a moral right to be shown classified documents?
In 2019, the literary agent and historian Andrew Lownie wrote a well-received biography, The Mountbattens. It attracted considerable attention for its well-researched but far from prurient details about the Mountbattens’ private lives, including the marmalade-dropping information that the bisexual Lord Mountbatten was nicknamed “Mountbottom”. The book was a bestseller and would undoubtedly be regarded as the standard work about the duo, were it not for one salient fact. There is a vital piece of evidence missing, in the form of access to Mountbatten’s unexpurgated diaries.
By his own estimation, Lownie has spent £250,000 of his own money on fighting Southampton University, the owners of the diaries, and the Cabinet Office in order to allow public access to Mountbatten’s writings, even after his book’s publication. Despite several Freedom of Information requests and an order by the Information Commissioner’s Office that the diaries should be released, Southampton claims that it has been instructed by the Cabinet Office to keep at least some of the material secret for the foreseeable future.
Lownie, undaunted, is now crowdfunding for a further £50,000 for legal fees, but does not intend, if he is successful, to parlay the opening of the diaries into an updated version of his biography. Instead, he has said that “this is opening up what could potentially be another Chips Channon diaries for other historians”. His noble but solitary battle is intended both to bring the potentially scandalous information within the diaries into public view and to ensure that he has set an important precedent about access to such material. As he commented, “we can make the point that this is not the way that governments and universities should behave.”
Any historian or biographer will know the frustrating experience of being unable to have access to classified material
My initial impulse was both to sympathise with Lownie (who, full disclosure, was once my own literary agent) and his arguments. Any historian or biographer will know the frustrating experience of being unable to have access to classified material, especially because certain well-trodden areas need original and exclusive information in order to have something fresh to say about them. I was fortunate that my most recent book, The Crown in Crisis, benefitted from the discovery of some previously unknown and revelatory documents in Balliol College concerning an assassination attempt on Edward VIII, but I am under no illusions of obtaining such an unexpected coup from the same, or similar, sources for any future projects. Lightning, after all, strikes but once in most writers’ careers.
And there are individual examples of frustration, too. Viewers of The Crown who enjoyed Pip Torrens’ steely performance as Elizabeth II’s first private secretary Alan “Tommy” Lascelles may well rush to buy the edited edition of his collected diaries, King’s Counsellor, and thereby consider that they know all they need to know about Lascelles. Yet the unexpurgated diaries, held in Cambridge’s Churchill College Archives, may well be full of tantalisingly revelatory material, not least about Lascelles’ sexuality, but no current researcher or historian stands a chance of getting their hands on them. They have been placed under embargo for the lifetime of the Queen, and then five years thereafter. This, however, pales into insignificance compared to the decision to keep the files relating to the Denning inquiry into the Profumo scandal secret, despite Profumo having died in 2006 and his mistress Christine Keeler expiring in 2017. This information has been embargoed until 2048, meaning that whatever no doubt jaw-dropping details are revealed, it will seem like ancient history, given that virtually nobody who could remember the affair will still be alive then.
Lownie commented on his own quest that “this fight has been going on for four years so I can only imagine there’s something [interesting] there otherwise why would they bother.” And this is the guiding spirit behind what can often be long and lonely quests to find the truth. We are all excited by the idea that in dusty and half-forgotten archives lurks some incendiary document that will forever change perceptions of a major political or social figure or event. It is easy to believe that official accounts of events are often dry and misleading, and that the truth is a shining and thrilling thing.
Simon Heffer’s recent editing of the Chips Channon diaries occasioned headlines for their revelatory account of the diarist and politician engaging in bisexual affairs and offering withering commentary on the figures of the day. Only the pedantic might have noted that Channon’s unexpurgated diaries, entertaining though they undoubtedly are, offer little in the way of truly revelatory material about wider society, rather than the high-class gossip that we crave.
Writers, especially, do not believe in such things as secrets, because we see them as frustrating and unhelpful
This reflects something of our desire as a society to be given full access to as much information as we deserve, or believe we deserve, immediately. Writers, especially, do not believe in such things as secrets, because we see them as frustrating and unhelpful. Our attitude towards the letters and diaries of public figures is that they are fair game, especially when they have been acquired by an institution such as Southampton University or Churchill College, and we should be allowed to get our hands on them immediately. And once we do, we have an automatic right to disseminate the information that we come across in our books and articles, however scandalous, upsetting or distressing it might be.
I am, generally, in favour of this approach. I did not get into biographical and historical writing to produce politely uninformative books about well-worn subjects. Like Lownie, I want new information, thrilling news and the kind of jaw-dropping revelations that will ensure that I can write a gripping story. Yet I can also see a counter-argument, which I offer in the spirit of satanic advocacy. It is inevitable that certain privileged kinds of information should be kept out of public view for any number of reasons, not least because its revelation could lead to a cataclysmic breakdown in trust in public institutions. It is exceptionally unlikely that there will be any major revelations in even the most closely guarded archive about, say, JFK’s assassination, Princess Diana’s death or the supposed alien landings at Roswell. But if anything came to light that was to authoritatively disrupt the status quo, one can only imagine the chaos that would ensue.
Sometimes, we have to concede that we are as attention-seeking, even prurient, as a tabloid journalist
And the other, smaller, point is that the vast majority of institutions, from the Royal Archives to university and national collections, are not the shadowy, quasi-Masonic gatekeepers of secret information that these news stories might imply they are. It might merely be my own experience, but I have found that the archivists employed by these organisations are friendly, pleasant and endlessly helpful people who seem genuinely happy to assist writers and researchers in their work, and have often appeared both apologetic and even frustrated at not being able to produce material that has been asked for. Working with them has been a consistent pleasure so far in my career, and I feel a faint sense of disquiet that anyone following the Lownie and Mountbattens case might see the archivists of Southampton University and similar staff as somehow attempting to frustrate the lawful exposure of documents for their own purposes.
At the time of writing, Lownie, aided by copious press coverage of his quest, has raised £11,000 of the £50,000 that he seeks. I hope that he is successful in his aim, and will be intrigued to read the revelations in Mountbatten’s diaries if and when they are finally brought out into the open, even if it would be a fittingly ironic resolution to the whole saga to find that there is nothing especially shocking or dynamic within the documents. Lownie’s fine book about the Mountbattens may, or may not, be the last word in biographical information about the pair. But I cannot share his belief that spending a jaw-droppingly large sum of money, with more yet to come, is somehow an essential act done on behalf of future generations.
It is very easy for historians to regard themselves as crusaders, seeking nobly after truth and openness. But sometimes, we also have to concede that we are as attention-seeking, even prurient, as a tabloid journalist. The only difference is that we hope that our writing will persist for decades, rather than turning into briefly diverting copy that is forgotten the next day. Sometimes we are right, and on other occasions, we flatter ourselves unduly. But I cannot help wondering what Mountbottom himself might have made of the whole situation. Perhaps the old sailor might have been horrified at his private musings becoming public knowledge. Or, alternatively, he might have poured himself a whisky, looked at the events, and shaken his head in amused bewilderment at the fascination that we have with discovering the innermost thoughts of great — and not-so-great — men.
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