Matt Hancock’s bungling effort to conceal his affair with Gina Coladangelo may give hope to some that all government attempts to keep information from the public will be equally futile.
Unfortunately, the government has launched a carefully targeted multi-front offensive to hide its activities more effectively. Among measures being considered or already under way are a reformed Official Secrets Act that will conflate investigative journalism and whistleblowing with espionage. On another front, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is being crippled by rejecting requests and under-resourcing. At an individual level, ministers and senior officials escape scrutiny by using encrypted messaging services that can make conversations disappear from the record.
Hancock himself was apparently so concerned over the contents of his emails that he used a private email account. Any enquiry into the test and trace debacle or the mass deaths in care homes may find it difficult to discover with whom the former health secretary was in contact.
In the last year, the rejection of requests for information from central government under the FOIA have soared to 50 per cent compared to 15 per cent when it was first introduced.
“The importance of FOIA is that it is a symbol of transparency which is why politicians hate it so much,” says Ben Worthy, a senior lecturer at Birkbeck specialising in transparency and freedom of information.
He says that governments do not dare to abolish the act, but they can defang it by across-the-board rejections, deliberately long delays or simple non-compliance.
Most threatening of all to the public knowing what the government is doing are proposed changes in the Official Secrets Act which would treat journalists, whistleblowers and leakers as if they were spies. A little-noticed 67-page consultative paper issued in May by the Home Office and titled Legislation to Counter State Threats (Hostile State Activity)says anybody revealing information that the government chooses to label as a state secret would be liable for prosecution. The papers defines espionage particularly broadly as “the covert process of obtaining sensitive confidential information that is not normally publicly available”.
Critics say the proposed legislation would leave journalists and others facing the threat of 14 years in prison for publishing whatever the government may say is damaging to national security. The burden of proof for a successful prosecution would be reduced and juries would not necessarily be told why some disclosure poses such a serious threat.
In Priti Patel’s introduction to the document, the home secretary portrays Britain as beset by enemies at home and abroad who pose a mounting danger to the nation. Her declared purpose is “to empower the whole national security community to counter the insidious threat we face today”.
Supposing all these proposals are implemented then Britain will be well on the way to joining those countries where the disclosure of any information damaging to the government is punishable. Offences range from revealing war crimes to disclosing trivial failures. The Indian government would like to silence anybody revealing the true death toll in the Covid-19 epidemic; Turkey has jailed journalists for writing that it had supplied weapons to al-Qaeda-type organisations; the Egyptian government once stopped an academic from publishing a paper showing that more Egyptian farmers were going blind because of the spread of a waterborne parasite.
Britain does not have the same tradition of authoritarian censorship, but freedom of expression here is more fragile than it looks for two reasons. The Johnson administration has been more moderate than many nativist populist governments that have taken power around the world over the last decade. But it shares with them a strategy of systematic threat-inflation, frequently modelled on the agenda of the Republican Party in the US. In the paper cited above, Patel speaks of the necessity of introducing voter IDs and combating foreign powers interfering in British elections.
A second feature of British culture makes the country particularly open to the belief that somewhere in the heart of government lie informational crown jewels, well-guarded secrets so important that their disclosure would pose an existential threat to us all. Such a myth is central to the plot of thousands of spy novels and films. But in my experience as a journalist few such earth-shaking secrets exist and what many people think of as a secret is either trivial or can be deduced by any reasonably well-informed person.
The disclosures by Dominic Cummings, recently in the top ranks of government as Boris Johnson’s chief of staff, are a good example of what might be termed “the fallacy of the state secret”. For more than seven hours he testified to a parliamentary committee about the inner workings and personal likes and dislikes within the Johnson government. He made damaging allegations about Hancock, Johnson, inadequate preparations for the Covid-19 pandemic, the failure to protect care homes and shambolic mistakes in calling the second lockdown.
Yet none of these revelations were “secrets” in any sense of the word since the facts about these disastrous decisions and decision-makers had long been obvious. What made Cummings’s testimony so fascinating was that it provided eye-witness confirmation of what most people already knew.
Much the same is true of the Wikileaks publication of hundreds of thousands of classified US diplomatic and military cables in 2010 for which Julian Assange is currently incarcerated in Belmarsh high security prison in London. Despite the best effort of the US government to prove the opposite, these supposed “secrets” revealed little that was not known previously, deeply embarrassing though it was for the US government to see proof that its helicopters were machine-gunning civilians in the streets of Baghdad.
To try to maintain the classic spy movie narrative that secrets betrayed means that there is blood on the hands of the betrayers, the US army set up a task force to try to find a US agent who had died because of the Wikileaks revelations. But after long researches the team of 120 counterintelligence officers failed to find a single person, among the thousands of American agents and secret sources in Afghanistan and Iraq, who could be shown to have died because of the revelations.
The real reason why governments fight so hard to maintain their monopoly control over information is not to keep security secrets vital to the nation, but to use or leak that information themselves.
They know that it is one of the key levers of their power and will persecute and punish anybody who tries to take it from them.
As Ben Worthy puts it, the struggle, which people imagine is about keeping secrets, is really about who discloses them and is consequently “a battle to control the news agenda”.