Norton-Taylor and a small band of his comrades are scarred but much decorated veterans of the ceaseless war between journalism and Whitehall secrecy – in Norton-Taylor’s case over a long career as the Guardian’s national security editor. Much of his achievement is a result of dogged, intelligent listening ‘between the lines’ to what officials are not saying. Much is his reward for persistent burrowing in the National Archives, again with a shrewd eye for which significant document is missing from a file (‘retained’). But a lifetime of experience in why, when and how officials prevaricate or lie has trained him to make proper use of an investigative journalist’s best source: the leak.
Norton-Taylor documents this sorry story in detail, but the most gripping chapters concern the ministry of defence and the British armaments industry. A decades-long tale of billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money wasted on bungled procurements, massive overspends on out of date weapons systems and collusion in the sale of weapons to tyrannies, not to mention the abuse of Iraqi prisoners and the systematic bullying of young British soldiers.
There is a tradition of journalists willing to suck up to British intelligence and publish spook-friendly stories – sometimes wildly inaccurate ones. Norton-Taylor was too independent and clear-thinking for that. He maintained good contacts in this crepuscular world, though. Often MI5 and MI6 officers told him to keep digging. His long relationship with the spies was “cat and mouse”, he writes... The State of Secrecy is an entertaining and timely book, written by a fine reporter who has made a habit of speaking unwelcome truth to power.