Frances Stonor Saunders at The London Review of Books:
The British Security Service, better known as MI5, released its file on Eric Hobsbawm last autumn. Hobsbawm, who had long desired to see it, had died two years earlier, at the age of 95. In his memoir, Interesting Times, he warned against autobiographical ‘post-mortem inquests in which the corpse pretends to be the coroner’, but whatever self-justifications he might have entered as evidence, the reading of his file is hampered by his absence. It is an unwritten rule of MI5 that Personal Files (PFs) are only released after their subjects have died. Another unwritten rule, among so many, is that it only releases such material after fifty years, which explains why the Hobsbawm file deposited at the National Archives in Kew ends in the mid-1960s. The rest is withheld, and researchers who ask for more will fare no better in their feeble supplications to the state than Hobsbawm, one of the pre-eminent British historians of the 20th century.
To this deficit must be added the blanks in the file left by the declassifiers (a posh word for ‘censors’), the silent deceptions by which deception is itself concealed. Many names are redacted, and some pages have been removed in toto and replaced with a white sheet on which is stamped this grammatically unappealing message: ‘THE ORIGINAL DOCUMENT RETAINED IN DEPARTMENT UNDER SECTION 3(4) OF THE PUBLIC RECORDS ACT 1958.’ Section 3(4) allows for the retention of a record for a ‘special reason’, which does not have to be given. No reason is given, either, for the absence of an entire folder of the Hobsbawm file. Retained? Lost in transit? Destroyed? Also withheld, as standard practice, is MI5’s intelligence assessment, the casework on the material collected (through surveillance, informers, plants etc) in a file.