WhatsApp panic stalks Westminster after mass leak of private messages

WhatsApp panic stalks Westminster after mass leak of private messages
Опубликовано: Friday, 03 March 2023 08:58

The leak of 100,000 of former UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages shows scrutiny by screenshot is just beginning.

LONDON — “I’d resign and move to another country.”

This was the reaction of one U.K. civil servant involved in the Whitehall response to the COVID-19 pandemic, when asked to consider how they’d respond if all their private communications from the period were leaked to the press.

Yet that nightmare scenario is exactly what’s happened to Matt Hancock, U.K. health secretary under Boris Johnson at the time of the coronavirus outbreak.

Around 100,000 WhatsApp messages sent and received by Hancock during the early days of the crisis have been handed to the Daily Telegraph by Isabel Oakeshott, a controversial British journalist he’d employed to help write a memoir of his time in office.

The right-wing Telegraph, having spent two months secretly analyzing the messages, is now dripping out damaging stories day by day upon its front page — many of them targeting the draconian COVID-era health measures it opposed.

Hancock has already been forced to deny claims that he ignored key advice on testing in care homes. Other published messages suggest face masks were only mandated in England’s schools in order to avoid a row with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Oakeshott has defended her actions as being “in the public interest,” while a spokesperson for Hancock said they were “partial accounts, obviously spun with an agenda” and “Matt was focused throughout on saving lives.” He accused Oakeshott of “a “massive betrayal.”

But as Hancock battles to save his reputation, other well-known — and lesser-known — figures across Westminster are starting to worry about getting dragged into the saga.

Already messages have been published painting old friends and colleagues of Hancock in a dim light. Former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson sent private messages to Hancock deriding teaching unions, which have now been splashed across the Telegraph’s front page.

Former London Evening Standard editor George Osborne, Hancock’s old boss, is shown discussing with Hancock how the minister might secure helpful coverage in his newspaper.

Westminster is braced for more such embarrassing revelations in the days ahead — and nobody knows which of Hancock’s contacts will be targeted next.

Several civil servants contacted POLITICO to say they felt disquiet the leak could expose details of their own identities and interactions with Hancock. They also voiced concern about a lack of clarity across departments regarding how official record-keeping applies to WhatsApp.

The FDA trade union is now consulting lawyers about the leak, out of concern for civil servants’ privacy.

Power of the group chat

But beyond the immediate furor, the cache of messages opens a fascinating window on how decisions were made by those at the top of government in the grip of a health emergency — and reveals that communication by WhatsApp was central to that process.

Two officials who worked with Hancock, one a civil servant, one a government aide, both speaking on the condition of anonymity, defended the use of WhatsApp in such a fast-paced environment.

“It was 100 percent essential to my job,” said the aide. “The point people don’t really appreciate now is there was a huge challenge of trying to find out what was credible and make judgments quickly.”

The ease with which WhatsApp allows messaging groups to be set up instantly allowed the 10 or 15 most important people on any particular subject to be consulted quickly with oversight from others in the group, they explained.

The Whitehall official agreed it was necessary for “quick conversations” and “questions that might not be worth a whole email.”

They both pointed out that WhatsApp was not used in isolation, but alongside emails and other conversations — and particularly in the early mornings and late evenings, when ministers and advisers were not physically in the same building.

Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages were passed to the Telegraph by the journalist Isabel Oakeshott | Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

Part of Hancock’s defense against the charge that he ignored expert advice is that in-person meetings took place in addition to the text exchanges, but these are not reflected in the information dump.

Yet the intimate conversations published by the Telegraph expose some uncomfortable truths about the medium.

Dodging scrutiny?

Tim Durrant, associate director at the Institute for Government think tank, acknowledged WhatsApp could be a useful tool for government, but observed that the use of group chats could lead to the inadvertent or deliberate exclusion of relevant people who ought to be consulted.

The way people tend to use the medium also presents an issue, according to Durrant.

“People want to reply quickly, and it’s a very performative way of communicating. Some of these [policy issues] do need properly weighing up, and it’s not very helpful for that kind of thinking,” he said.

The Conservative MP and former health minister Dan Poulter echoed that view, telling Times Radio that dealing with a pandemic “should be done on the basis of proper evidence and proper understanding, and WhatsApp is not a good medium for that.”

The same Whitehall official quoted above added: “We do things through [Whitehall] private offices for a reason — because there’s an email chain and then you can see everyone’s cleared it, everyone can see what’s happened.”

They claimed conversations sometimes moved to WhatsApp when ministers “felt uncomfortable” about something and didn’t want to create a formal record.

The argument put forward by many who could be drawn into trial by WhatsApp is that these questions ought to wait for the formal COVID inquiry, which they expect will gather information in a more methodical way.

Former health minister Nadine Dorries said she was “really disappointed” because even though she knew that every message to Hancock “would end up in an inquiry,” the Telegraph expose was taking place without “due process.”

With the inquiry not expected to report until the 2030s, it seems scrutiny by screenshot is only just beginning.

Dan Bloom contributed reporting.

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