Don’t expect transparency in a government run by WhatsApp

Earlier this month, the Mail on Sunday ran an article that caused quite a stir: there was a hunt on “for a Redthroat mole at the heart of the government”. The columnist Dan Hodges claimed that, after the Cameron-Greensill lobby affair, Labour shadow ministers had received so many leaked texts “it was as if they had been sitting in the Treasury themselves”.

“A downpour of sleaze allegations is hitting the government,” he wrote. “And the belief is that it’s civil servants who are the rainmakers.”

The suspicion that a Labour-supporting mole was leaking messages to the press failed to mention that the Times, building on work by the FT, had broken the pivotal story. Only through freedom of information (FoI) requests, not leaks, did they uncover that former prime minister David Cameron, who started working for Greensill Capital in 2018, had repeatedly asked chancellor Rushi Sunak to include the company in a Covid-related government loan scheme.

Then last week accusations surfaced that former Downing Street special adviser Dominic Cummings was behind some more leaks. This challenged the “Redthroat mole” theory further, and when Cummings pointed the finger at another Conservative special adviser, Henry Newman, the political waters got muddy indeed. (Cummings has denied being behind the leaks, while government sources have called the allegations in Cummings’ blogpost false.)

Hodges’ assertion, though, that it was “career” civil servants furious at Cummings for his reforming zeal who were leaking stuff, resonated with me. More than 20 years ago I was hired by the BBC to investigate something similar. Only it was a blue mole being hunted, not a red one.

The suspicion in 1999 was that arch-Tories in the ranks of the civil service were deliberately hindering New Labour’s reforms via leaks to journalists. The BBC wanted a film about the early days of the Tony Blair government, and here was an enticing narrative of a battle fought between red Blairites and blue permanent secretaries.

Months of off-the-record interviews with special advisers and civil servants revealed nothing. There were later leaks in relation to the Iraq war, but the picture pre-2001 was more the slow-turning cogs of a bureaucratic institution, not a Sir Humphrey with “teeth” (as Hodges puts it). Blair was certainly reported to have fought against “obstruction and delay by mandarins”, but there was no blue fifth columnist.

It was clear at the time, though, that creating such a ghost had some political advantages. My suspicion is that the same applies today. The counter-argument (one Hodges himself posed in his article) is that a focus on a leaking mole helps “pass the buck” from the issue of Tory cronyism. Hodges even refocused his aim this weekend to claim “the real ‘lobbying’ scandal involves … (Johnson’s fiancee) Carrie Symonds”, arguing that her undue influence has proved divisive in No 10.

All this diversion is what some senior Conservatives want. After all, David Cameron – at the heart of the current commotion – knew that lobbying was a problem years ago, and that’s embarrassing for all. During a Conservative party conference speech in 2010 he predicted that corporate lobbying would be “the next big scandal” – possibly to create a diversion from the MPs’ expenses row.

It was Cameron’s words that led me on to another investigation: secretly filming managers of the now-defunct PR company Bell Pottinger, boasting about their political leverage. Posing in 2011 as a middle-man who wanted to get positive press for the Uzbek cotton trade – a sector that was infamously beset by child labour – I approached Bell Pottinger, which was run by former Thatcher adviser Tim Bell. My intention was to expose a London industry that offered political representation to despots and human rights abusers.

In our meetings, the PR company’s staff boasted about getting Cameron to speak to the Chinese premier on behalf of one of their clients. They claimed Bell Pottinger could gain access to the foreign secretary, William Hague, the prime minister’s chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, and to Downing Street special adviser Steve Hilton. They also bragged about using “dark arts” in their media manipulation.

When the story ran, it sparked a debate in Westminster. A parliamentary paper on a statutory register of lobbyists was launched to “increase the information available about lobbyists without unduly restricting lobbyists’ freedom”. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the resulting register of 2015 was decried as “feeble”. Even more unsurprising is that, despite calling for the list to be established, Cameron’s name is not on it, since he was an in-house rather than a third-party lobbyist.

Admittedly, Hodges has a point. Political scandals about lobbying should not be outed by – as he suspects – leaks. Rather they should be in the public domain, open for scrutiny. Conflicts of interests should be published on government contracts, and political donations listed on the register. As Cameron said in 2010, “we need to see the minutes of the meetings, the emails, the phone logs”.

The trouble is we can’t.

Why? Because this is a government run by WhatsApp. I have been battling No 10 since September 2019 for them to acknowledge whether special advisers use encrypted software to conduct their business, even though Cummings recently admitted as much on his blog. The question of why Cummings ever used a private email in his civil service role is barely raised.

When I asked, under FoI, what communication platforms Boris Johnson operates on (to gauge who might by lobbying him via text), it was refused with the argument: “Even stating what channels are not used would provide useful information to hostile actors.” Such opacity has led Richard Ovenden, the Bodley’s Librarian at Oxford University, to write that government’s ephemeral messages “must be permanently preserved, not just for the sake of historians 350 years from now to pore over, but for the present public to be able to scrutinise the actions of our elected and paid officials”.

Lack of transparency plays a huge part in these lobby scandals, and this has been the case for years. The proposed inquiries into lobbying should have happened decades ago. It is also why the Citizens, an investigative outfit I work for, is behind a legal challenge to stop ministers sending disappearing messages.

In the end, it’s clear that the real issue here is a government that shows repeated contempt for transparency and accountability. Only by addressing that will our democracy be in a stronger place to end cronyism.

Comments are closed.