From: Sir Humphrey Appleby
To: Bernard Woolley
Subject: Unwelcome reports
I quite agree with you that the draft report on overstaffing in Whitehall is a pernicious document, but you must understand that in an open democracy like ours it would be most improper to suppress it. What we can do, however, is persuade ministers to take a reasonable decision, in the public interest, not to publish it.
We have a well-established four stage procedure for discrediting unwelcome documents. In Stage One we start by hinting that there are security implications and considerations – hostile or competitive governments could deduce confidential information from its revelations. We then point out that it could be used to put unwelcome pressure on the government if it were to be misinterpreted; this is unanswerable as anything might be misinterpreted, even the Ten Commandments. Indeed especially the Ten Commandments. We then say it is better to wait for the results of a wider and more detailed survey over a longer time scale. If there is no such survey in progress, so much the better – we commission one, which gives us more time to play with.
In Stage Two we discredit the evidence; we say that it leaves important questions unanswered, that much of the evidence is inconclusive, that the figures are open to interpretations, that the facts have changed since the survey was carried out, that certain findings are contradictory, and that some of the main conclusions have been questioned. (If they haven’t been, question them. Then they have)
Stage Three consists in undermining the recommendations. We have certain tried and tested phrases for this: ‘Not really a basis for long term decisions…’ ‘…. not sufficient information on which to base a valid assessment….’ ‘… no reason for any fundamental rethink of existing policy…’ ‘… broadly speaking, it endorses current practice…’ I can give you the full list if you need it.
Stage Four cannot be committed to paper and must be done strictly off the record. It involves discrediting the author of the report; he has a grudge against the government, he is a publicity seeker, he is pitching for a knighthood/chair/vice-chancellorship. He used to be, or wants to be, a consultant to a multinational company, he wants to chair a Quango.
These four stages always work. But there must never be any suggestion of censorship or repression. This is a democracy, Bernard.
(Sir Humphrey Appleby KCB CVO)
© Sir Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, 16 September 2010