Information watchdog urges Whitehall to be more open and adapt to fact that any official communications could be leaked
The government should take the WikiLeaks revelations as a lesson that civil servants and ministers can no longer assume they operate in private, and "wise up" to a world where any official communication could be made public, according to the information commissioner.
Christopher Graham, the independent freedom of information watchdog, told the Guardian that the website's disclosures had profoundly changed the relationship between state and public, in a way that could not be "un-invented". But he warned against "clamming up," saying the only response was for ministers to be more open.
Speaking after weeks of revelations from US embassy cables published by WikiLeaks, he said: "From the point of view of public scrutiny, the web and the internet has empowered citizens. Governments now need to factor in that things can be WikiLeaked.
"We are strongly of the view that things should be published. Where you're open things will not be WikiLeaked. Whatever view you take about WikiLeaks – right or wrong – it means that things will now get out. It has changed things. I'm saying government and authorities need to factor it in. Be more proactive, [by] publishing more stuff, because quite a lot of this is only exciting because we didn't know it. You can't un-invent WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks is part of the phenomenon of the online, empowered citizen ... these are facts that aren't going to go away. Government and authorities need to wise up to that."
Governments around the world have condemned the leaking of 250,000 US embassy cables to the website WikiLeaks, which has produced startling revelations about diplomatic briefings, the behaviour of governments and international relations. The Guardian and four other newspapers around the world have published a series of in-depth reports from the cables, redacting some information to protect individual sources where publication could put them or their families at personal risk, where there are questions of national security and military sensitivity, or legal considerations of defamation.
Graham, who has been information commissioner since last year, said he opposes the indiscriminate leaking of information. The Freedom of Information Act appoints the information commissioner to weigh up a presumption of publication of government communications, with the necessity to protect national security and individuals' privacy.
He said: "The difference between what I do and what Julian Assange [the founder of WikiLeaks] does is the difference between freedom of information and free-for-all. Freedom of information accepts that there are some things where you need to strike a balance. The free for all says isn't this exciting, we didn't know it – never mind the casualties. Life is much more complicated than that.
"That doesn't mean that pubic authorities shouldn't sit up and take notice of what's happening with WikiLeaks. Even if you're working within the structures of freedom of information, things may get out. It's as well to recognise that fact."
He said the revelations would inevitably impact on how governments work, but urged ministers not to react by trying to control information more tightly. "One response is that they will clam up and not write anything down, which is nonsense, you can't run any organisation that way. The other is to be even more open. The best form of defence is transparency — much more proactive publication of what organisations do. It's an attitude of 'OK. You want to know? Here it is'."
The introduction of the Freedom of Information Act by the previous government had begun to change officials' attitudes to public data, but too often many still behave as if they are governing "in private", he said.
"It is on occasion like drawing teeth, if we were much better about being open and upfront. If all of us just accept that this is the people's information and 99.9% should be out there in all its tedium, you wouldn't have WikiLeaks."