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Clive Ponting (born April 1946) is a British writer, former academic and former senior civil servant. He is the author of a number of historical revisionist books on British and world history, as well as books in the growing field of Big History, but is perhaps best known for leaking documents about the Belgrano affair of the Falklands War.
While a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Defence (MoD), Clive Ponting sent two documents to Labour MP Tam Dalyell in July 1984 concerning the sinking of an Argentine navy warship General Belgrano, a key incident in the Falklands War of 1982. The documents revealed that the General Belgrano had been sighted a day earlier than officially reported, and was steaming away from the Royal Navy taskforce, and was outside the exclusion zone, when the cruiser was attacked and sunk.
Official Secrets Act
Ponting admitted revealing the information and was charged with a criminal offence under Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act of 1911. His defence was that the matter was in the public interest and its disclosure to a Member of Parliament was in the public interest. This was the first case under the Official Secrets Act that involved giving information to Parliament.
Although Ponting fully expected to be imprisoned – and had brought his toothbrush and shaving kit along to the court on 11 February 1985 – he was acquitted by the jury. The acquittal came despite the judge's direction to the jury that Ponting's official duty was not to disclose the information and that "the public interest is what the government of the day says it is". Earlier in the trial the judge, Sir Anthony McCowan, decided that he should direct the jury to find Ponting guilty; the one thing a judge cannot do. Ponting resigned from the civil service on 16 February 1985.
Right to know
The Ponting case was seen as a landmark in British legal history, raising serious questions about the validity of the 1911 Official Secrets Act and the public's "right to know". Shortly after his resignation on 16 February 1985, The Observer began to serialize Ponting's book The Right to Know: the inside story of the Belgrano affair. The Conservative government reacted by tightening up UK secrets legislation, introducing the Official Secrets Act 1989.
Before the trial, a jury could take the view that if an action could be seen to be in the public interest, that might justify the right of the individual to take that action.
As a result of the 1989 modification, that defence was removed. After this enactment, it was taken that '"public interest" is what the government of the day says it is.' One further fact which influenced Mr Ponting's unexpected acquittal was that he submitted the documents to an MP, who was, in effect, upholding the right of Parliament not to be lied to by the government of the day.
Ponting was educated at Bristol Grammar School.
Following his resignation from the Civil Service, Ponting served as a Reader in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Wales, Swansea, until his retirement in 2004.
- Richard Norton-Taylor, "The Ponting Affair", Cecil Woolf, London, 1985, p. 14.
- BBC, On this day, 16 February 1985, Falklands' row civil servant resigns.
At the time of his resignation from the civil service in 1985, he was a Grade 5 (assistant secretary) earning £23,000 per year.
- BBC, Clive Ponting case: Where is the investigators' report?, by Martin Rosenbaun, 18 March 2011.
- BBC, Troubled history of Official Secrets Act, 18 November 1998.
- Brown, Cynthia Stokes (2012). Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present. The New Press. p. xiii. ISBN 1595588450. Retrieved 23 June 2014.
About the case
- Norton-Taylor, Richard. The Ponting Affair. Cecil Woolf, 1985. ISBN 0-900821-73-6
By Clive Ponting
- The Right to Know: The Inside Story of the Belgrano Affair (1985), Sphere Books, ISBN 0-7221-6944-2
- Whitehall - Tragedy and Farce (1986), Hamish Hamilton, ISBN 0-241-11835-2
- Breach of Promise - Labour in Power, 1964-70 (1989), Hamish Hamilton, ISBN 0-241-12683-5
- 1940: Myth and Reality (1990), Hamish Hamilton, ISBN 978-0-241-12668-4
- A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations (1991), Penguin, ISBN 0-14-017660-8
- Churchill (1994), Sinclair-Stevenson, ISBN 1-85619-270-9
- Armageddon - The Second World War (1995), Random House, ISBN 0-679-43602-2
- Progress and Barbarism: The World in the Twentieth Century (1998), Chatto & Windus, ISBN 1-85619-610-0
- World History - A New Perspective (2000), Chatto & Windus, ISBN 0-7011-6834-X
- Thirteen Days - Diplomacy and Disaster, the Countdown to the Great War (2003), Pimlico, ISBN 0-7126-6826-8
- The Crimean War - The Story Behind the Myth (2004), Pimlico, ISBN 0-7126-6826-8
- Gunpowder - The Story (2005), Chatto & Windus, ISBN 0-7011-7752-7
- A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations (2007), Penguin, ISBN 0-14-303898-2 Penguin's description of the book
- BBC, On this day, 16 February 1985, Falklands' row civil servant resigns
- A Green History of the World