A cabinet minister in the Labour government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Richard Crossman served as minister of housing and local government (1964-1966), leader of the House of Commons and lord president of the Council (1966-1968), and secretary of state for social services (1968-1970). While he was a minister, he kept a detailed diary of the inner workings of government, particularly high-level discussions involving cabinet ministers and senior civil servants. Following his death in 1974, his literary executors wished to honor his instructions by publishing his diaries in three volumes titled The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister.
In June, 1975, the British government moved for an injunction to bar publication of the Crossman diaries because they had not been approved by the cabinet office. The case was heard before Lord Chief Justice Lord Widgery. Attorney-General Sam Silken decided not to invoke the Official Secrets Act. Instead, he argued that such a breach of confidentiality was not in the public interest, since it would undermine the constitutional principle of collective responsibility and inhibit cabinet ministers from speaking frankly and senior civil servants from giving controversial advice. The government contended that the common law of England had accepted over a period of time a number of “conventions” and “parameters” that limited how much information former government officials could release to the public. The defense contended that the principle of confidentiality extended only to marriage and industrial secrets, that confidentiality had been breached by a number of previously published books, and that if there was a problem, legislation would be the best answer.
On October 1, 1975, Widgery delivered his judgment. He stated that because the first volume of Crossman’s diary dealt with events that had occurred a decade earlier and because there had been three general elections in the interval, no substantive case existed for preventing its publication. At the same time he effectively ruled that in the publication of future volumes of this diary, or any other diaries and memoirs, each individual case had to be decided on its own merits. Most legal observers believed this meant that future governments would have a more difficult time proving it was in the public interest to have information suppressed. The two remaining volumes of the diaries were published without incident. No other high-profile case involving an attempted suppression of memoirs occurred until the Spycatcher controversy of the late 1980’s.