Incompetent Ministers & Duplicitous JournalistsThe Matt Hancock Leaks
Isabel Oakeshott’s exposé comes in the wake of repeated rejections by the Government of every Freedom of Information request around ministers’ use of WhatsApp for official business, reports Iain Overton
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There are two ways journalists can get access to vast troves of sensitive government correspondence.
The first is to carefully cultivate their source, examine the potential impact of the leak through the prism of ethics and public interest, do a deep dive into the material and corroborate against secondary evidence, and then publish with a detailed right of reply and fact-check. This is what happened with the reporting on the vast disclosures by WikiLeaks.
The second is to persuade a political source to give the documents to them as part of a vanity project and then betray them, and to accompany that betrayal with another vanity piece about how they were acting all along in the public interest. This is what happened yesterday with Isabel Oakeshott, Government WhatsApp messages and the Telegraph’s so-called ‘Lockdown Files’.
That leak – 100,000 messages that showed how then Health Secretary Matt Hancock rejected the Chief Medical Officer’s advice to test all residents going into English care homes for COVID – is admirable in the sense it has revealed the callous disregard with which Conservative politicians treated Britain’s vulnerable elderly (often core voters).
According to the leaked texts between civil servants and politicians, in April 2020, Sir England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, recommended to Hancock that testing should be implemented for all individuals entering care homes. However, despite this guidance, Hancock chose not to follow it.
Instead of mandatory testing for all individuals entering care homes, he insisted testing only for those being transferred from hospitals. It was only on 14 August 2020 that the requirement for testing those entering care homes from the community was introduced. Between 13 and 17 April 2020, a total of 17,678 people lost their lives due to COVID in care homes in England.
It is an important revelation – and the Conservative Party has serious questions to answer over such potentially excess deaths; questions it will no doubt refuse to answer.
What is also a concern, though, is the nature of the leaks – not least because for the past three years, successive Conservative Governments have repeatedly rejected every Freedom of Information (FOI) request regarding the disclosure of WhatsApp messages used for government business.
Oakeshott, a right-wing political commentator, justified her leaks in a self-congratulatory piece titled ‘Why I had to make Matt Hancock’s COVID WhatsApps public’. In it, she explained why she just had to release this “sensational cache” of messages.
“Following his resignation in June 2021,” she wrote, Hancock “downloaded the records from his phone and shared them with various people, including me. I was helping him to write his book about the crisis, and we drew heavily from the material to reconstruct his day-by-day account.”
So, what started off as an attempt by Hancock to redeem himself, ended with a betrayal.
“Those who have information in the public interest need to put it out there right now,” she opined. She writes this without actually releasing the texts themselves.
In the end, very few WhatsApp messages from government have ever been made truly public, even now. Sue Gray’s report into the ‘Partygate’ scandal, and the disregard for the laws of the land exhibited by Downing Street during the height of the pandemic, examined numerous WhatsApp messages – but Byline Times’ access to such evidence via FOIs was rejected by the Government.
Other refusals have been given: that even to note what platforms civil servants communicate on would be a threat to national security; that it would cost too much to access these texts; that the Government does not have access to these WhatsApp messages.
When public advocacy group The Citizens took the Government to the High Court over access to such messages, the judge rejected the case, arguing that disclosure was an issue for policy-makers not law-makers.
Oakeshott has added fuel to all of this by wrongly claiming that “WhatsApp messages are not subject to Freedom of Information requests”. This is not true. It is just the Government, no doubt mindful of the shocking exposés that reside in such messages, refuses to share them.
Instead, it seems, access to the secret kingdom of government correspondence is only granted to right-wing hacks and only then as the inadvertent consequence of deals by ex-ministers seeking to reboot their public images.
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Now, rather than share her WhatsApp message trove with others, Oakeshott even suggests the evidence they contain may never see the light of day. “The sheer volume of this material and the complexity of cross-referencing messages… makes extracting the most pertinent information a gargantuan mission,” she wrote. “Who knows whether everything that is demonstrably in the public interest will end up where it should – in the public domain?”
And, perhaps in a reassurance to current ministers, she noted: “Those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear.” Oakeshott, the betrayer, is now the judge of what should and should not be in the public sphere.
It’s all rather tawdry and may damage future journalistic attempts to penetrate the secret garden of government communications. Deep questions remain.
Will Matt Hancock be held to account for his part in the leaks – arguably a violation of GDPR laws? Will Isabel Oakeshott release any messages that might be damning for current ministers? Will there be any collaborations with news outlets outside the pro-Conservative Telegraph? Will Downing Street finally admit that its civil servants routinely use WhatsApp? Or will vast swathes of correspondence continue unaccountable and unrecorded, lost to future historians and records of note?
Perhaps some of these questions will be answered. The Information Commissioner’s Office has reportedly said the leak “does again raise questions about the risks that the use of WhatsApp and other private channels bring, particularly around transparency” and that “public officials should be able to show their workings, through proper recording of decisions and through the FOI”.
But, for the moment, the keys to the kingdom of government communications does not lie with the public. Access only appears to be given by incompetent ex-ministers to duplicitous journalists whose agendas lie far more rooted in the realm of politics than they do in the realm of accountability and justice.
Such a power dynamic should leave as bad a taste in our mouths as the filtered revelations it now serves up.