Earl Mountbatten’s diaries were kept secret from the public at a cost of £180,000 to the taxpayer, a new probe has revealed.
The Cabinet Office splashed the cash in a “needless” legal battle to keep the diaries and letters of Earl Mountbatten – the maternal uncle of Prince Philip – under wraps.
Royal biographer and historian Andrew Lownie spent five years fighting to win unrestricted access to the documents as he researched his book about Louis Mountbatten and his wife Edwina.
Eventually, Mr Lownie succeeded in getting hold of most of the letters – but a Freedom of Information request revealed that the Government spent £180,454 of public money in trying to keep them private, the Telegraph reported.
The archive had already been purchased by the Cabinet Office and Southampton University using £2.8m in public money in 2010.
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The Government’s legal bill covered five appeals, a further five related appeals and an application for costs, all of which took place between December 2019 and March this year.
This also covered costs for the Cabinet Office to seek external legal work and counsel by the Government Legal Department.
Meanwhile Mr Lownie – who used a junior barrister for proceedings – spent around £450,000 on the case to open the over 30,000-page archive.
The fraction of letters that remains undisclosed include correspondence between Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, who are rumoured to have had an affair.
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The author said these letters are historically important for telling the story of the partition of India.
He said he was told the University of Southampton had a “ministerial direction” to keep the archive closed, but was not given further information.
Mr Lownie told the newspaper the Cabinet Office and the university had known the letters were innocuous, making the drawn-out litigation “needless”.
He said: “I can only conclude that the aim was to break me financially ‘pour decourager les autres’ [to discourage others].
“This was a collection bought with public funds to be open to all. Surely it would have been much simpler for Southampton to have conducted a full scale review any time over the previous decade or even to go through the material applying any exemptions they needed to rather than continue to insist on a blanket ban on over 33,000 pages of personal diaries and correspondence going back a century.
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“Prince Harry can leak intimate family secrets from a year ago but historians cannot see files which are a hundred years old.”
Mr Lownie argued the case raises issues of “transparency and abuse of power”.
In 2019, the Information Commissioner found in his favour and ordered the release of the entire collection of 4,500 boxes of documents and photographs, known as the Broadlands Archive.
However, the Cabinet Office appealed and has continued to block access to certain passages in the diaries, some of which date to the 1930s.
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