In a candid moment, Roy Jenkins, then the home secretary, once described Britain as an "instinctively private, discreet and secretive society [where] there has been little spontaneous acclaim for the virtues of the Fourth Estate."

Prime Minister James Callaghan has now underscored Jenkins' words, his government having just produced a proposed "reform" of Britain's Official Secrets Act that virtually all editors here agree will sharpen its already fierce bite.

The proposals are embodied in a white paper that openly acknowledges that the government is abandoning the Labor Party's pledge to make officials justify the withholding of information.

In its election platform, Callaghan's party had, in effect, promised a U.S. style Freedom of Information Act. The white paper, however, says it would cost too much and is not needed anyway.

Apart from this moment of frankness, there is little in the document to provide even ironic comfort for a Fleet Street already inhibited by harsh libel laws and contempt judgments.

The Official Secrets Act, the best known of the press curbs here, was passed in 1911 largely as the result of a scare over German spies. Its first section, which outlaws disclosure that would help an enemy, has not occasioned much debate.

It is the famous Section Two that the white paper "reforms." This catchall jails anyone for giving or receiving any government information that has not been officially released. In theory, a reporter who simply received an unpublished survey of government tea-drinking habits can end up with two years in jail.

Section Two is rarely used. Its spirit, however, chills any potential whistle blowers and makes some journalists think twice about digging too hard into a government.

Callaghan now plans to confine Section Two's scope and make it a more usable tool. First, he proposes to end penalties for receiving prohibited information. A reporter would have to communicate or publish before he could go to jaiL.

Second, Callaghan would limit prohibited information to matters involving defense, foreign relations, law and order and confidencies the government has received from the private citizens.

The white paper does not spell out what these categories involve, although the prohibited information must cause "serious injury to the interests of the nation." No court would determine this, however, a minister's say-so would be final.

The headings appear broad enough to cover disclosures that the Defense Ministry has hurriedly spent millions on house furnishings to use up its budget, that Britain was secretly seeking U.S. help in negotiations over a German-French currency proposal, that the Defense Ministry was accepting defective helicopters from a contractor. Giving such information could jail a civil servant. Printing it - and all these British stories have been printed in the United States - could jail a reporter.

Although the white paper does propose exempting economic information, the currency question could still be caught under the rubric of foreign relations.

The Financial Times, one of the most sophisticated dailies here, observed that the old Section Two "has acquired a certain negative merit; it is so manifestly absurd that it is rarely used." But the proposed "new legislation might be actually more restrictive rather than less. If we were to have an act that is specific about the type of information that may or may not be disclosed the temptation would be to use it."

The paper deplored the absence of a recommendation for a freedom of information law and dismissed the white paper argument that parliament scrutiny made it necessary.

"The fact is that under present conditions governments can get away with almost anything," it said.

The Guardian and the Times of London said much the same thing. The liberal Guardian called the white paper "a failure on every count" and the conservative Times described it as "a tactical defeat for the opponents of excessive secrecy."

Among the more serious national papers, only the Daily Telegraph was pleased.

"All governments have secrets and a duty to protect them," said the Telegraph, whose editor is a former minister of information in a conservative government.

In the modern world, information is power and politicians often are reluctant to share it.

The view of many in power here is that most citizens are not equipped to make judgments about public policy and information will only confuse. By coincidence, Callaghan's son-in-law, and ambassador in Washington, Peter Jay, is now involved in a classic demonstration of this view. He has just dismissed the head of the British Information Service in New York, in part reportedly because that civil servant insisted on continuing a daily bulletin summarizing editorials that criticize as well as praise the government.

The Callaghan proposals no doubt will be changed before they reach Parliament. But given the elitist tradition here, few in Fleet Street can expect any lever to make this closed government more open.