Attempts to stifle the media by the party in power are becoming more and more pervasive, report Sam Bright and Iain Overton

“It is our ambition to be one of the most transparent governments in the world,” former Prime Minister David Cameron said in 2010.

More than a decade after these comments, with successive Conservative-led administrations having pledged to conduct government in this same populist spirit, we are now faced with the opposite – one of the least transparent administrations, if not in the entire history of British politics, then certainly in its modern era.

The situation is so serious that it is currently being litigated in the High Court. The law firms Foxglove and the Good Law Project, alongside the campaigning journalism outfit The Citizens, are challenging the Government over its “rampant” use of WhatsApp messages for official business – a practice that circumvents the standard ways in which decisions are recorded.

If officials conduct Government business on WhatsApp, and these messages are not retained, there exists a gap in the institutional memory of our highest authorities – that in turn cannot be accessed by journalists, researchers or the public at large.

In the trial’s first day, the court heard that senior ministers and officials – including the Prime Minister – have repeatedly used personal phones, email and WhatsApp to do Government business. Boris Johnson even received summaries of his ‘Red Box’ – confidential information about high-level Government business – via WhatsApp.

The retention of information communicated on personal messaging services is also patchy at best. Evidence presented in court shows that, when Boris Johnson changed his phone in April 2021, none of his past WhatsApp messages were retained.

“Given the current ‘Partygate’ investigation, as well as the future inquiry into the Government’s response to the pandemic, this has serious implications for transparency and holding the Prime Minister and his Government to account,” the Good Law Project said, in response. Foxglove added that we are witnessing the “modern day equivalent of shredding evidence”.

This challenge has taken years – and dozens of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests – to come to fruition, which unfortunately is a common feature of the Government’s approach to many journalistic enquiries.

In August 2021, for example, the Byline Intelligence Team submitted a FOI request to the Home Office, in relation to the appointment of Jonathan Isaby as the Home Secretary’s Communications Private Secretary. Isaby is a familiar figure in Conservative and pro-Brexit circles, having previously worked as the co-editor of ConservativeHome and the CEO of the TaxPayers’ Alliance. We have sought to uncover more details about the process that took place to appoint Isaby – and whether civil service protocols were followed.

FOI requests are supposed to receive an answer in 20 working days. Seven months later, we are still awaiting a reply. The Home Office did not respond to our request for comment.


A Chilling Effect

The Freedom of Information Act, introduced by a Labour Government in 2005, is a primary tool through which wrongdoing is exposed to the light. It is an inconvenience to local and national government, but governments of the past have seen it as a necessary evil – a facet of our politics that protects democracy rather than the interests of those in power.

However, there has been a retrenchment of FOI in recent years, fuelled by Johnson’s administration. Indeed, access to Government information has plunged to record lows under Boris Johnson’s premiership, according to official records.

Notably, the Cabinet Office has operated a secretive and controversial ‘clearing house’ that vets ‘sensitive’ requests from journalists and other individuals – effectively blacklisting certain members of the media in the process.

These are obstacles that we have been trying to navigate for the last year, running the Byline Intelligence Team. Filing legitimate FOI requests with some Government departments is almost a futile endeavour in the era of Johnson – with officials using even the smallest of loopholes to avoid handing over the information that we seek.

In 2019/20, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) received 6,367 FOI complaints, generally based on FOIs not being answered either fully or in a timely fashion. In 2015/16, the ICO received 5,100 – meaning that in five years there was a 25% increase in FOI related complaints. 

Take the case of Randox, a healthcare firm that has been awarded COVID testing contracts by the Government worth more than £600 million. In February, the Government finally released extensive documents showing the communications that had taken place between ministers, officials and Owen Paterson – a former Conservative MP who was employed by Randox. Pressure from the Labour Party, and the resignation of Paterson from Parliament after revelations surfaced about his past lobbying, forced these disclosures.

However, prior to the release of these documents to the public, the Government admitted that it had failed to answer eight FOI requests pertaining to the Randox COVID contracts – one of which had remained unanswered for 14 months. The Government evidently had the information on file, but was refusing to release it.

Part of the Government’s defence in this case, rolled out regularly during the pandemic, has been ‘commercial confidentiality’. In other words, if the Government handed over the information that we seek, it would reveal agreements between public and private enterprises that may give an advantage to commercial competitors, skewing the market.

Yet, when the Government has agreed contracts worth at least £54 billion with private firms during the pandemic – more than the GDP of some 140 countries and territories – the ‘commercial confidentiality’ loophole masks a vast amount of Government spending from public scrutiny.

It also appears as though this allergy to transparency has reached its logical conclusion in some quarters.

In recent weeks, the Byline Intelligence Team has received legal threats from two former Cabinet ministers, warning that they would consider launching proceedings, if we published information about them. Our stories were in the public interest, thoroughly researched, and indeed much of the information had been published before by other media outlets.

Ultimately, it is highly unlikely that an MP or a Cabinet minister – present or former – would launch legal proceedings against a media outlet, especially on the basis of the information that we intended to publish. However, the threat alone – which raises the spectre, however distant, of millions of pounds in legal fees – has a chilling effect on free speech and the freedom of the press.

Unfortunately, we only seem to be travelling in one direction: towards the roll-back of our right as journalists and citizens to know what the Government is doing in our name, and with our money.

Sam Bright and Iain Overton run the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project between Byline Times and The Citizens

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