Official Secrets

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"Official Secrets"
Yes, Prime Minister episode
Episode no.Series 2
Episode 2
Written byAntony Jay
Jonathan Lynn
Produced bySydney Lotterby
Original air date10 December 1987
Guest appearance(s)

Antony Carrick
Denis Lill

Episode chronology
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"Man Overboard"
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"A Diplomatic Incident"
List of Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister episodes

“Official Secrets” is the tenth episode of the BBC comedy series Yes, Prime Minister and was first broadcast 10 December 1987.


Jim Hacker is chairing a Security Clearance Committee, which is discussing the publication of his predecessor’s memoirs. The Solicitor General is happy for the latest chapter to go unchallenged, but Hacker is less so. The previous Prime Minister has cast aspersions on his successor’s ability when Minister for Administrative Affairs. The Solicitor General states that as they can’t suppress anything on grounds of security, the PM will have to seek redress through the courts if he believes that he has been libelled. However, even if he accepts the Solicitor General’s reasoning, Hacker is adamant that Chapter 8 must not be published. He insists on this despite the fact that an earlier, more complimentary chapter had been leaked to the press even though it contained confidential material and a leak enquiry was never held. Hacker claims that "Anybody could have leaked that chapter to the press", to which Sir Humphrey Appleby, the Cabinet Secretary, smiles smugly and agrees.

The next morning, not only has Chapter 8 also been leaked, but Hacker’s attempt at censoring it has as well. An infuriated PM summons Sir Humphrey Appleby, Bernard Woolley and his Press Secretary, Bill Pritchard, to the Cabinet Room. Hacker instructs Bill to tell the assembled journalists (non-attributably) that Chapter 8 is a “pack of lies” and that his predecessor is going “gaga.” Bill paraphrases it into more acceptable language and leaves. Meanwhile, the PM is determined to find the person responsible for the leak.

Hacker has dinner with Derek Burnham, one of the newspaper editors who ran the story. The PM formally asks him to retract it and print “the truth,” but Burnham refuses—unless he has hard evidence. Much to Bernard’s horror, Hacker promises him the minutes of the Security Clearance Meeting, which will bear out his stated position.

His conscience troubled, Bernard goes to see Sir Humphrey and informs him that the minutes of the meeting are not yet written, and that the PM has asked for them to be falsified. Sir Humphrey is nonchalant, and explains that the purpose of minutes is not to provide a written account of a meeting, but instead to protect people. They allow a pause where anything regrettable said in the heat of the moment can be safely put to one side and not appear in the official record of events. In this instance, the PM said that he accepted the Solicitor General’s reasoning—and that is all that need be mentioned. Bernard leaves with a much clearer conscience.

A few days later, Bernard is walking up to the front door of 10 Downing Street when he is ambushed by a posse of Fleet Street hacks. They ask him why it has taken so long to publish the minutes of the PM’s meeting, when Hacker had cleared them days ago. Bernard gives the Official Secrets Act as the probable reason for delay and, before he has realised it, has told the press what is tantamount to the PM being above the law.

Bernard seeks a word with Hacker, and confesses his blunder. The PM is exasperated and calls in Sir Humphrey and Bill Pritchard. The Cabinet Secretary attempts to defend Bernard by clarifying that some breaches of the Official Secrets Act could be construed as “unofficially official,” while an off-the-record press briefing might be described as the opposite. Hacker is unimpressed and Bill suggests that they distract the journalists by feeding them an alternative story. Sir Humphrey suggests the expulsion of 76 Soviet diplomats, which is standard civil service practice for killing press stories. In the meantime, Hacker wants his leak inquiry “rigorously” pursued: something for which there is almost no precedent.

When the leak inquiry reports, the culprit is found to be the Energy Secretary’s press officer, who was present at Hacker’s meeting, and apparently acted under hints from the secretary, whom the ex-PM had mentioned as being the most competent Minister of the previous administration. Bernard and Sir Humphrey privately agree that they cannot allow the prosecuting of a fellow civil servant and when Hacker insists upon it Sir Humphrey informs him that if the case is to go ahead, then there will also be calls to investigate the earlier leak, which, in all probability, was of Hacker’s doing. He protests that it was “harmless,” but as Sir Humphrey points out, either both leaks are harmless or neither. Since sacking the Energy Secretary and/or his press officer would also cause more trouble than it’s worth, they both agree that the best course of action is to expel 76 Soviet diplomats.


The controversy over the publication of a former minister's memoirs (in this case, those of Hacker's predecessor as Prime Minister) is particularly similar to the legal proceedings that surrounded the posthumous publication of the memoirs of Labour minister Richard Crossman in 1974.

The theme of a civil servant leaking information which contradicts the version given by ministers (the unnamed official at the Energy department) and the desire of the civil servant for a "clear conscience" (Bernard Woolley) is similar to the case of Clive Ponting. Ponting was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act 1911 for leaking information which indicated that when the British sank the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano during the Falklands War she was sailing out of the exclusion zone.[1]

The expulsion of 76 Soviet diplomats recalls the Heath Government's 1971 decision to expel 105 Soviet diplomats on charges of espionage.

Episode cast[edit]

Actor Role
Paul Eddington Jim Hacker
Nigel Hawthorne Sir Humphrey Appleby
Derek Fowlds Bernard Woolley
Antony Carrick Bill Pritchard
Denis Lill Derek Burnham
Jeffry Wickham Solicitor General
Tom Bowles
Sadie Hamilton
James Newell
Michael Shallard


  1. ^ "Troubled history of Official Secrets Act". BBC News. 18 November 1998.

External links[edit]