Clive Ponting, author and former civil servant

Born: April 13, 1946;

Died: July 28, 2020

CLIVE Ponting, who has died aged 74, was a civil servant who became notorious to some and heroic to others when he leaked documents about the sinking of the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano during the Falklands War. The Government’s line was that the Belgrano was sailing towards the exclusion zone and was therefore a threat to British forces when she was hit. The documents revealed that was not the case.

Ponting seemed like an unlikely anti-establishment figure in some ways. He was a trusted assistant secretary in the naval department of the Ministry of Defence, with the ear of Margaret Thatcher. He had also been awarded an OBE in 1980 by the Prime Minister for coming up with plans to cut waste in the military.

But there was a more complicated and iconoclastic side to his personality, which only became stronger as he grew older. Later, when he was living in Scotland, he joined the SNP, citing his fears that the Conservatives were a threat to devolution. Even while he was a senior civil servant serving a Conservative Government, he was a founder member of the SDP and was interested in Buddhism.

Clive Ponting was born in Bristol and studied history at Reading University before starting a PhD at University College London, which he later abandoned. He joined the civil service in 1970 and when Thatcher came to power in 1979, became part of the team that was tasked with saving money at the MOD. He demonstrated how half a million could be saved by reforming the food supply; other targets for cost-saving were the military bands and the MOD’s dentists.

However, it was the Falklands War and specifically the sinking of the Belgrano that converted him from a trusted civil servant into a whistleblower that the Government was determined to see in prison. The sinking happened on May 2, 1982, when the Belgrano was torpedoed by the British nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror; 323 people died.

It had been sunk on the orders of the Prime Minister, who said it had posed a danger to British ships. However, the warship was outside the 200-mile maritime exclusion zone Britain had declared around the Falklands and was said to be sailing away from the islands when she was hit.

Criticism of the decision grew with one of the most vocal critics, the Scottish Labour MP Tam Dalyell, alleging that the ship had been sunk to undermine a Peruvian peace initiative. As the furore grew and the Government stuck to its story, Ponting eventually decided to act. He had written a top-secret report on the Belgrano which recommended that ministers should be honest about what happened. When his advice was rejected, he sent the papers to Dalyell, who sent them onto the Foreign Affairs select committee whose chairman, Sir Anthony Kershaw, alerted the government.

The police were called in and the leak was traced to Ponting. He was told that, if he was prepared to resign, that would be the end of the matter, but it wasn’t: the Government was determined to see him prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, and he was charged. His defence was that what he did was in the public interest. In the end, an Old Bailey jury agreed.

“With near-defiance a jury of eight men and four women overturned directions from a Judge and returned a unanimous verdict of ‘not guilty’”, reported the Glasgow Herald on February 12, 1985. There were gasps and applause as the jury delivered its verdict. “I am not a criminal”, Ponting said afterwards. “It is wonderful. I am overwhelmed by the verdict. The Government now has a good deal to answer for. Section Two of the Official Secrets Act is a corpse in the legal system. It’s time it was buried”.

By now, Ponting’s credentials as an anti-establishment hero were well established and he was also the source of a story in The Observer in 1985 about a trawler that was accidentally doused with plague bacteria that was being developed as part of experiments into germ warfare. The experiments were conducted on a ship moored off Lewis in the 1950s.

After his trail over the Belgrano affair, Ponting began a new career as a historian at Swansea University and published a number of sometimes controversial books. There was a book about his side of the Belgrano story, The Right to Know: The Inside Story of the Belgrano Affair, as well as books about the Crimean War and the two world wars and a biography of Churchill which alleged that the wartime Prime Minister was a racist and eugenicist.

After retiring, Ponting lived for a time in Greece before settling in Kelso where he became interested in Scottish politics and joined the SNP. He believed that the Conservative government saw Brexit as a way to neuter devolution and was ruthless enough to do it. “If it is no deal,” he said, “I think it’s inevitable that the Government will take emergency powers to deal with the problems.”

In his autobiography, The Importance of Being Awkward, Tam Dalyell says this of the leaking of the Belgrano documents and Ponting’s trial at the Old Bailey: “Ponting’s was one of the cases of the century. It confronted parliament with deep issues of truth and the position of a civil servant who knows that his ‘political masters’ are deceiving the House of Commons”.

Ponting was married four times. First, to Katherine Hannam, then after their divorce to Sally Fletcher, a fellow official at the MoD, then to his third wife Laura, and his fourth Diane, who died in March. He had no children.