Monday, January 08, 2018

How convenient

The UK has a regular programme of release of historical material through their National Archives. But this year, in addition to the usual end-of-year release stories (Margaret Thatcher hated pandas, apparently), there's also the news that files on some of the UK's less stellar moments are being systematically "misplaced":

Thousands of government papers detailing some of the most controversial episodes in 20th-century British history have vanished after civil servants removed them from the country’s National Archives and then reported them as lost.

Documents concerning the Falklands war, Northern Ireland’s Troubles and the infamous Zinoviev letter – in which MI6 officers plotted to bring about the downfall of the first Labour government - are all said to have been misplaced.


Almost 1,000 files, each thought to contain dozens of papers, are affected. In most instances the entire file is said to have been mislaid after being removed from public view at the archives and taken back to Whitehall.

An entire file on the Zinoviev letter scandal is said to have been lost after Home Office civil servants took it away. The Home Office declined to say why it was taken or when or how it was lost. Nor would its say whether any copies had been made.

In other instances, papers from within files have been carefully selected and taken away.

How convenient. Its amazing how its the documents on the UK government's controversial actions, which might not show it in the best light (or which might lead to justice for its colonial victims), which are being "misplaced" in this way. If the British establishment was trying to give the impression that it had stolen these documents and then destroyed them in a crude coverup, they couldn't do a better job.

And they can do it because the UK Public Records Act does not include any offence provisions. In New Zealand, it is a criminal offence to destroy public records. In the UK, of course, they have an outdated law designed to protect the establishment rather than hold it to account.

But it does make me wonder if anything similar happens here. New Zealand has a statutory process for temporary return of archive material and you'd expect it to be checked when it comes back to the archives. So, I guess its time for an OIA about how often this happens, and whether anything goes "missing" in the process. Hopefully its rare enough that I can get a list...