The personal diaries and letters of Lord Mountbatten , the last Viceroy of India, are at the heart of an ongoing appeal hearing in London this week, to decide whether they can be fully released for open public access.
Judge Sophie Buckley is presiding over the First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) appeal, scheduled for hearings until Friday, to determine the fate of some redacted sections of the diaries and correspondence dating back to the 1930s.
It covers an important period of British-Indian history, including when India's Partition was being overseen by Mountbatten and involves personal diaries and letters of both Lord Louis and wife Lady Edwina Mountbatten.
The UK Cabinet Office maintains that most of the information from those papers is already in the public domain and any withheld aspects "would compromise the UK's relations with other states", with reference to India and Pakistan.
"The Mountbatten collection is important historically but there are also important issues at state – not least abuse of state power and the censoring of our history," said Andrew Lownie, the historian and author of 'The Mountbattens: The Lives and Loves of Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten' who has been fighting a four-year-long battle for the complete release of the papers.
University of Southampton
In 2011, the University of Southampton purchased the archival material, named Broadlands Archive, from the Mountbatten family, using public funds of over GBP 2.8 million and with the intention of making the papers widely available. However, the university then referred some of the correspondence to the Cabinet Office.
In 2019, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) had found in favour of Lownie and ordered the release of the entire Broadlands Archive – which also includes “letters from Lady Mountbatten to Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of the newly independent India (33 files, 1948-60), along with copies of his letters to her”.
The University of Southampton had explained in response at the time that the correspondence between Lady Mountbatten and Nehru remained in private ownership and is “confidential but the University has a future interest in it”.
That decision of the ICO has since been appealed, which is now being heard in the First-Tier Tribunal this week.
“The Cabinet Office have now narrowed the number of exemptions they are seeking to impose so most of the letters and diaries are available. This is a victory after four years of campaigning but there is still a legal bill of GBP 50,000 and so the crowfunding has to go on,” noted Lownie, in an update from the hearings on Tuesday.
The author says he has spent his savings on the case and has raised over GBP 54,000 in pledges from the CrowdJustice.Com website to fund the ongoing appeal.
“This is an important archive and also involves crucial principles of censorship, Freedom of Information, abuse of power. No university should be blocking public access to archive material of great historical significance which it purchased using public money and for which tax income was forfeited,” said Lownie.
The diaries of Mountbatten, who was a great-grandson of Queen Victoria, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, an uncle to the late Duke of Edinburgh and great-uncle to Prince Charles, also contain personal correspondence within the royal family – another factor cited behind some redactions.
"Protecting the dignity of The Queen and working members of the royal family by protecting their privacy in truly private matters preserves their ability to discharge their duties in their fundamental and central constitutional role, not least of unifying the nation (as was seen during the depths of the current pandemic)," notes a written witness statement of Roger Smethurst, head of knowledge and information management at the Cabinet Office.
“Despite its age there is some information within the documents held by the University which, if released, would compromise the UK’s relations with other states. The witness statement from the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) sets out the matters of potential harm and provides details for the Tribunal to consider in its balance of the public interest,” the witness statement further notes.
Meanwhile, the hearing remains ongoing with oral witness statements and cross-examinations and a decision is expected at a later date.