“He that would keep a secret must keep it secret that he hath a secret to keep,” says Sir Humphrey Appleby, permanent secretary to the Department of Administrative Affairs, a fictitious branch of the British government. He is one of the main characters in the highly acclaimed 1980s BBC television series “Yes Minister” and its equally phenomenal sequel, “Yes Prime Minister.” Sir Humphrey’s axiom would surely be readily shared by current real-life Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as he bulldozes his bill for the protection of special official secrets through parliament.
The bill would meet with Sir Humphrey’s high approval not least because it keeps secret what secrets it deems especially secret. People who supposedly violate the regulations set down by the legislation would never be sure what secret it was that they failed to keep secret. Civil servants would become even more secretive than they already are because they fear a potential 10-year imprisonment for divulging secrets whose degree of secrecy they are secretly never quite sure of. Their unwritten code of secret conduct would ultimately be: “When in doubt, keep secret.”
Such a mindset would also be very much after Sir Humphrey’s own heart. Not only the civil service but ordinary citizens would also walk in fear of breaking the law whose notions of secrecy are shrouded in secrecy. The whole nation would turn into a secret society in which people’s lips are sealed because they do not know what secrets they may be unwittingly sharing with each other.
The foregoing words of Sir Humphrey’s appear in an episode called “A Question of Loyalty” in the “Yes Minister” series. Sir Humphrey’s political master, Jim Hacker, is minister for administrative affairs at that point. By a quirk of fate and some astute political moves Hacker goes on to become prime minister. Sir Humphrey also moves up to the top of the administrative ladder and joins Hacker as chief secretary to the Cabinet.
Enemies in friendly disguise as much as friends in seeming hostility, the two of them come up against some intriguing issues of secrecy in their respective top jobs in government.
“Official Secrets” is an episode that crops up about two-thirds of the way into the prime ministerial series. Clearly neither fact nor fiction concerning government and politics can proceed without touching on the theme of secrecy. On this occasion, an increasingly power-conscious Prime Minister Hacker tries to suppress the publication of a chapter of his predecessor’s memoirs because it says a lot of very unkind things about Hacker’s conduct when he was still in charge of the Department of Administrative Affairs.
The solicitor-general, who is the top civil servant in charge of legal interpretation, complains that the chapter cannot be suppressed on grounds of official secrecy because the criticisms against Hacker, while possibly libelous, are not a security risk.
The outburst indicates how easily the prime ministerial job can go to somebody’s head. Hacker, as political head of government, now considers himself leader of the nation, whereas the government is actually there to serve the nation and not the other way around. This is the misunderstanding of a weak mind with strong delusions. To the owner of such a mind and such delusions, every nasty thing that is said against them becomes actionable as a breach of official secrecy. Freedom of speech would disappear from the radar screen of democracy. It could just as easily happen in real life as well as in television.
Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor at Doshisha University Graduate School of Business.