Clive Sheridan Ponting (born 13 April 1946) is a former senior British civil servant and historian. He is known for having leaked documents about the sinking of the ARA General Belgrano in the Falklands War. At the time of his resignation from the civil service in 1985 he was a Grade 5 (assistant secretary) earning £23,000 per year.
As an historian he has written a number of books on British and world history. Amongst his most influential work was a Green History of the World (1991), which was revised as A New Green History of the World in 2007, as well as a biography of Winston Churchill (1994) and 1940: Myth and Reality (1990). He has often been called a revisionist historian.
The General Belgrano papers
While a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Defence (MoD), Ponting sent two documents, subsequently nicknamed "the crown jewels", 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. After Ponting admitted revealing the information, the Ministry of Defence suspended Ponting without pay. On 17 August 1985, he was charged with a criminal offence under Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act of 1911. The Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had his pay reinstated once she had been briefed on what had happened. Ponting's defence at the trial was that the matter 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 expected to be imprisoned, 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". The judge, Sir Anthony McCowan, "had indicated that the jury should convict him." The verdict has been treated as an instance of jury nullification.
Ponting resigned from the civil service on 16 February 1985.
Charges under the Official Secrets Act
Shortly after his resignation, The Observer began to serialize Ponting's book The Right to Know: The Inside Story of the Belgrano Affair. The Conservative government reacted by amending 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.'
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. He was one of the pioneers of big history.
His historical works have attracted significant attention and often courted unfavourable reviews in the United Kingdom, given the controversial positions he has taken, although international reviews and more recent reviews have been favourable. As one later reviewer wrote, describing the impact of his biographical work, "Ponting shattered the Churchill illusion for his readers leaving them little to piece together, just marble shards on the floor of his looted temple".
Ponting joined the Scottish National Party in 2018. He gave a speech in Scotland in which he warned SNP members that a disastrous Brexit would be used as context in which to disband or constrain Scottish Parliament.
About the case
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; published in the U.S. as The Twentieth Century: A World History (1999), Henry Holt & Co., ISBN 978-0-8050-6088-1
- World History - A New Perspective (2000), Chatto & Windus, ISBN 0-7011-6834-X. Ponting's concern in the book is to provide a revisionist perspective that corrects for what he perceives as the dominant bias in conventional historical narrative towards ancient Greece, the Roman empire and the expansion of Europe (in effect, an ingrained Eurocentrism). He attempts to balance the narrative by incorporating more from often neglected aspects of world history, such as China, India and Japan as well as Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, the Indus Valley, Mesoamerica and Peru. The book is also an exploration of the past from the interpretative framework of Big History, with the first chapter involving the perceived 99% of human history (up to 10,000 B.C.E), which then moves on to a discussion of the transition from hunter-gathering to settled agriculture and the rise of civilisations around the world.
- 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
- Richard Norton-Taylor, "The Ponting Affair", Cecil Woolf, London, 1985, p. 14.
- BBC, On this day, 16 February 1985, Falklands' row civil servant resigns
- The China-Burma-India Campaign, 1931-1945: Historiography and Annotated Bibliography by Eugene L. Rasor, pub Greenwood, 1998, p. 91.
Hi Hitler;, by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, pub Cambridge University Press, 2014, p. 34.
- Elton, Rodney (20 March 1985). "Official Secrets Legislation". Hansard. HL Deb vol 461 c613. Retrieved 1 December 2017.
the highly classified chronology prepared by Mr. Ponting now known as "the crown jewels"; Kaufman, Gerald (3 April 1985). "The Tribunal". Hansard. HC Deb vol 76 c1242. Retrieved 1 December 2017.
those fabulous Belgrano "crown jewels", which we were told were matters of the greatest secrecy; Dalyell, Tam (13 June 1985). "Defence Estimates 1985". Hansard. HC Deb vol 80 c1057. Retrieved 1 December 2017.
Ponting ... compiled the "crown jewels"
- Malnick, Edward (30 December 2014). "Margaret Thatcher warned officials not to be too harsh on Belgrano whistleblower". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 17 December 2017.
- BBC, Clive Ponting case: Where is the investigators' report?, by Martin Rosenbaun, 18 March 2011.
- "Troubled history of Official Secrets Act". BBC. 18 November 1998. Retrieved 8 June 2015.
It was hailed as a victory for the jury system. The judge had indicated that the jury should convict him.
- Brown, Cynthia Stokes (2012). Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present. The New Press. p. xiii. ISBN 1595588450. Retrieved 23 June 2014.
- CJ Coventry, Clive Ponting's Churchill, Before/Now, 1(1) (2019), https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:23811/
- "World History: A New Perspective". Random House Australia. Retrieved 23 June 2014.
- "World history : a new perspective / Clive Ponting". Trove National Library of Australia. Retrieved 23 June 2014.