Easter Island Revisited

Tam Dalyell

  • A Green History of the World by Clive Ponting
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 352 pp, £16.95, May 1991, ISBN 1 85619 050 1

In my 29 years as a Member of the House of Commons, I can recollect only one occasion when I have broken out in a cold sweat of anxiety. It was on a Saturday morning, at home, when I was shaving and listening to the 7 a.m. BBC Radio News. Headline Number One: a senior civil servant had been taken into custody for an alleged breach of the Official Secrets Act.

For many months, since July 1982, I had been campaigning by Parliamentary Question to try to find out the truth behind the decision to sink the 44-year-old American cruiser Phoenix, survivor of Pearl Harbour and later the General Belgrano, during the Falklands War. Publicity on the issue had made me,as happens to campaigning MPs, a receptacle for information. Some of the letters were nutty: others were informed, and came from men who had been at sea. Most were signed – a few were anonymous, and these tended to go into the waste-paper basket. Then there arrived one anonymous letter which was quite different from any other letter I had received about the Belgrano. I knew it could only have been written by someone at the very heart of Government decision-making during the Falklands War; it told me that I had been deceived by ministers. I suppressed the politician’s first instinct to scamper off to the Political Editor of the Press Association, or some sympathetic journalist. The letter revealed, inter alia, that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Franks Committee had had truth withheld from them. I supposed that the Chairman of the Select Committee would be outraged, and formally sent him the document. But the call of loyalty to party on crunch occasions is apt to rise above the call of loyalty to the House of Commons, and to the democratic process. Sir Anthony Kershaw, instead of asking ministers questions arising from the document, handed it to the Defence Secretary, Michael Heseltine, and his department. Let no one kid themselves that, in our system, Select Committees of the House of Commons with an in-built Government majority will perform the same investigatory functions as the Committees of Congress. On really delicate matters, the system tends to obfuscate.

To get back to that Saturday morning. My immediate reaction was that some poor sod, trusting me, and concerned about honesty in government, had been landed in the shit. It was at that moment that I heard the name of Clive Ponting for the first time.

During 11 long days at the Old Bailey, luck was with us. Ponting’s solicitor, Brian Raymond, was resourceful. Merlyn Rees agreed to be a witness, and most effective he was. The jury was taken aback when Mr Heseltine’s Civil Service Private Secretary, Richard Mottram, casually revealed, to the incredulity of Ponting’s counsel and the jury, that the Commander-in Chief’s Official Report on the Falklands War had been tampered with behind his back, in relation to the crucial timing of the contact between HMS Conqueror and the Belgrano. And I started to believe that Ponting might have the sympathy of the jury when an elderly gentleman stepped into the witness box, to be treated by the judge as if he were some vagrant off the street, and asked aggressively if he was trying to teach the judge his law. The elderly gentleman had for fifteen years been Professor of English Law in Oxford. With a better-mannered judge, Mr Ponting could have gone to prison. Instead, the jury unanimously decided to acquit him.

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