A (partial) defense of Matt Hancock: leaders should be free to discuss policy privately Simon Jenkins

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MAT Hancock may have been a complete idiot, but even idiots have rights. As the former health secretary charts an uncertain retreat from politics, she must face a stack of orders on her head. Somebody leaked the CCTV footage of Suraj hugging the office. Then his ghostwriter breaks a nondisclosure agreement not to reveal his private messages. Causing serious embarrassment to the image and reputation of the British Government.

Any large organization facing an unexpected crisis is likely to show signs of disorganization and panic. In the spring of 2020, COVID-19 presented European governments with painful decisions. Scientists disagreed with each other. Politicians pitted ideology against expediency. Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson succumbs to the disease and decisions become chaotic. Judging by the recent leaks, it appears that the business was conducted in casual meetings, over phone calls and sparsely on WhatsApp.

The leaked WhatsApp messages clearly conveyed the tension at the heart of the government as ministers with competing interests and ambitions chalked out a policy for the lockdown. Flipped comments, four-letter words and what appears to be contempt for the public circulate throughout Whitehall. The head of the civil service, Simon Case, dismisses his prime minister as “a nationally distrusted figure”, and accuses the then-chancellor, Rishi Sunak, of going “bonkers” over the contact-tracing policy. Hancock attacks the head of the NHS for “fucking up massively” and dismisses the vaccine czar, Kate Bingham, as “wacky” and “completely unbelievable”. The whole Mad Hatter’s tea party takes place while the minister claims to be leading science by dismissing scientists, setting arbitrary targets and focusing on press releases.

Hancock has protested that the WhatsApp leaker, journalist Isabel Oakeshott, provided a biased and partial account of his office. In return she claims that her revelations are in the public interest, as she should have known they would be when she signed her non-disclosure agreement. More to the point, if the material is of genuine public interest, it is already in the hands of the Covid inquiry, which should be the real judge of what it exposes as a matter of public policy. The scam lies in the investigation taking so long. Sweden’s Kovid report came a year ago.

It is clear that British policy was thoroughly debated, often bitterly. This in itself was certainly a virtue. The alternative view was that of China, where dissent meant disloyalty and humiliation, and an extremely damaging lockdown went unchallenged.

A separate question is whether disclosing the specifics of these arguments and interactions will encourage or inhibit similar debates next time. Those in power must have some way of contesting the policy without subsequent trial and humiliation. The collapse of cabinet secrecy under Tony Blair led to arguments behind the closed doors of “sofa government”. In his dystopian novel The Circle, Dave Eggers depicts a democracy in which every public figure is wired online for every waking hour in the name of “accountability”. It degenerates into mobocracy.

The use of hacking and other invasions of privacy in the 1980s and 90s led to an increase in common law defenses to privacy, defenses that are now considered reasonable. Since then, advances in electronic communication have destabilized privacy, whether personal, corporate, or governmental. Whitehall must now invent means to enable ministers and officials – subject to parliamentary accountability – to discuss policy and disagree without fear of the media watching their every word.

The best that can be said about Johnson’s administration is that at least his aides have had the courage to say what they think of him. I suspect that if they did this now, the world would be listening.

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