in the back
Very dear diary
The Mountbattens , Issue 1573
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SECRET DIARY: Louis and Edwina Mountbatten, some of whose diary entries from 1947 are still too incendiary to release apparently as they are rude about Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's first governor-general
HISTORIAN Andrew Lownie has achieved a victory – albeit a Pyrrhic one, since it has used up his £350,000 life savings – in his struggle to prise open the archives of Lord and Lady Mountbatten, housed at Southampton University.

Five years after the university refused to let him see the Mountbattens' diaries and correspondence, saying they had been "closed" by the Cabinet Office, it has now released more than 99 percent of them, running to 35,000 pages.

Before being bought for the nation in 2011, they had already been studied by authors and researchers. According to Philip Ziegler, who quoted extensively from the letters and journals in his biography Mountbatten (1985), "they contain no great secrets".

Soon after the 2011 purchase, however, university archivist Professor Chris Woolgar secretly asked Whitehall to order their closure. As revealed in Eye 1548, he wrote to the Cabinet Office: "I don't believe these should be available to researchers… given their many references to the royal family." There were "other elements" that worried him: "Lady M's diaries for 1947-48, and possibly into the 1950s, have references to India and Pakistan." Hardly surprising given that Mountbatten was the last viceroy of India. When the sale of the papers was first reported this same Prof Woolgar told the BBC that "without them we would find it difficult to understand fully the foundations of the independent states of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh". Yet in private he was telling the Cabinet Office: "I believe we should use the exemptions under FoI [Freedom of Information] to close them."

Secrecy fetishists
In 2019 the Information Commissioner ordered the archive to show Lownie the papers. Spurred on by the Cabinet Office's secrecy fetishists, Southampton refused to obey and appealed to the information tribunal. After getting short shrift from a judge at a preliminary hearing in February 2021, the university and Cabinet Office nevertheless persisted with their challenge, which was to have a full hearing last November. But with defeat looming, a reverse ferret was needed. Even while briefing expensive QCs to argue that it shouldn't release the Mountbatten files, Southampton quietly did just that. Last summer, with no announcement, it posted online digitised copies of almost the entire archive (Eye 1554).

Six-figure legal bills
These confirmed Ziegler's judgement: no sensational secrets, merely a fascinating historical resource. So why had Whitehall and Southampton run up six-figure legal bills – at taxpayers' expense – to block access? While claiming the credit for their belated openness, they implied that even the few remaining redactions were enough to justify the time and money devoted to obstructing Lownie.

With 35,000 pages now suddenly public, the November hearing was mostly reduced to the minutiae of royal exemptions from FoI. The tribunal's judgment, not yet published but seen by the Eye, concludes that Southampton University's appeal and Lownie's counter-appeal "are both allowed in part" – though its even-handed logic is sometimes hard to follow.

Because it "contains personal information about the Queen", the university had censored a 1974 diary entry in which Brenda, "glittering with her tiara", embarked from the royal yacht in Auckland for an official dinner. The tribunal thinks this shouldn't be censored – but then endorses redaction for the same reason ("personal information about the Queen") of a 1971 diary entry in which Lord Mountbatten has scrambled eggs with Brenda and Princess Anne before watching The Tales of Beatrix Potter.

Secret evidence
More seriously, some parts of the diaries for 1947 will remain secret for reasons of high diplomacy. In secret evidence to the tribunal, Foreign Office mandarin Nigel Casey warned that relations with Pakistan could be harmed by releasing 75-year-old journals in which, for instance, the viceroy's wife is rude about former governor-general Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Lownie's lawyers pointed out that Edwina Mountbatten's entries about the "megalomaniac and pathological" Jinnah are already quoted in Janet Morgan's official biography Edwina Mountbatten (1991), Pamela Mountbatten's India Remembered (2007) and elsewhere. But Casey insisted they must be suppressed lest Pakistan – where freedom of information laws are "not well understood" – interprets their release as signalling "the perceived approval of the British government".

The tribunal's judgment defers entirely to the "expertise and experience" of the FO man. But not everyone finds him such a credible witness: in evidence to the Commons foreign affairs committee in March, Whitehall whistleblower Josie Stewart said Casey had "intentionally lied to the committee" about the evacuation of Pen Farthing's dogs from Afghanistan.

Lownie says he won't appeal the decision, having reached the end of the financial road – especially since the information tribunal doesn't normally award costs. With legal bills outstanding, he is appealing for funds via the CrowdJustice site. But he still feels it was worth using FoI to unlock an important historical archive "which would otherwise have languished undiscovered and degrading in the university's library".

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