Leaks: the good, the bad and the irresistible
As Sir Kim Darroch resigns as UK ambassador to the US, Ray Snoddy looks at the nature of leaks - from the shocking and historic, to the necessary and dangerous
Journalists just love leaks. There’s no point in denying it. It’s just plain exciting, whether it’s an anonymous document arriving in the post as in the old days, a civil servant or minister being outrageously indiscreet over lunch, or now, the arrival of a memory stick containing hundreds of thousands of words.
In a way it’s what journalists do.
Among the dross, the self-serving briefings and the endless pointless press releases of the daily information exchange, this is the sharp end of the business; the sparkling, shiny bit taking the private, confidential and often disgraceful into the public domain.
The slight problem is that there are confidentiality laws, and even more draconian laws to protect state secrets.
The thrill of the chase can lead journalists into dangerous territory up to an including jail.
It is also far from clear on a case-by-case basis how much – if at all - a public interest defence now works in the real world of the law.
Where does the leaking of the internal observations, or “secret cables” of “our man in the US” Sir Kim Darroch fit into the hierarchy of leaks?
It certainly doesn’t rank with the great historic leaks such as the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the unexpected depth of US political and military involvement in Vietnam.
It’s not a Snowden exposing the mass surveillance of friends and foes by America’s National Security Agency.
The Daily Telegraph revelations on MPs expenses and The Observer and Guardian’s turning over of the activities of Cambridge Analytica were far more significant.
At the other end of the scale there were the totally illegal, newspaper instigated phone-hacking leaks, which have cost the tabloid press dearly in terms of compensation and reputation in the cause of trying to track down celebrity gossip.
In the scale of things The Mail on Sunday’s scoop was a middling sort of leak, more interesting than dramatic, although the relationships between the UK and Trump may take some time to recover.
Sir Kim’s “top secret” observations on the administration of Donald J. Trump amount to truisms, or to use a more technical term, nothing but the bleeding obvious.
In a way his characterisations – inept, insecure, incompetent and “uniquely dysfunctional” – almost pass for acceptable diplomatic language to describe some of the things that Trump has done, such as separating young children from their parents and putting them in cages.
Trump himself, without any trace of irony, has already proved the truth of everything that Sir Kim said by his inept, insecure, incompetent response.
Here context is everything. Who was saying it and to whom and the scale of the issue can be judged by the consequences.
Never mind state dinner invitations, Liam Fox, secretary for international trade, is cooling his heels in Washington after US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross cancelled a meeting at short notice, apparently because of the diplomatic brouhaha.
Consequences indeed, as the UK seems to be relying heavily on a new trade deal with the US post-Brexit. Such a deal could be scuppered, at least for now, by the dysfunctional White House and jobs could be lost as a result.
The row even managed to seep its way into the Johnson-Hunt Premiership debates with Hunt taking the honourable line that it was the UK who decided who its Washington ambassador should be and when or if he should be withdrawn.
Johnson, not for the first time in the debate, flannelled and prevaricated and refused to say whether he would keep Sir Kim on if he became Prime Minister. Johnson left the clear impression he would toe the Trump line.
Can leaks be classified and what are the outlines of such a classification?
The criteria include public impact and significance, the motives of those doing the leaking, the motives of the newspaper in printing, the journalist involved's contacts and interests, and obviously the consequences.
The public leaking of Sir Kim’s private cables has clearly consideration impact to judge by the degree of pandemonium caused but in terms of the information itself little long-term significance.
No new Trump illegalities were revealed and you could have heard similar opinions about Trump in any bar in the House of Commons.
The motives of leakers can range from greed and revenge to pushing a political cause and mischief for its own sake. A state actor who wishes us ill cannot be entirely ruled out although first indications are that this is unlikely.
The motives of the Darroch leaker are difficult to divine and may never be found but the author of the piece, Isabel Oakeshott, has links to Nigel Farage and the Brexit party.
If there is a “rational” explanation could it lie somewhere in the territory of disparaging a career civil servant like Sir Kim and a possible career civil servant successor in Mark Sedwill, the current cabinet secretary.
Ironically, as the Guardian has pointed out, Sedwill, the man responsible for the defenestration of Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, could be put in charge of the current leak inquiry.
Could someone out there be trying to push Johnson further into the arms of President Trump - hardy a difficult task - and make possible the unthinkable?
In an increasingly bizarre world could the current chaos be designed to provide cover for the most extraordinary outcome of all – the appointment of Nigel Farage as Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Washington?
As to the motives of the Mail on Sunday we probably don’t have to look too carefully into that.
It’s possible that the paper, which has greatly changed its tone since it’s previous editor Geordie Greig came out in favour of Remain, is a player in some intricate political/diplomatic/Brexit game.
The simpler explanation is probably more believable.
The paper was brought a cracking story, an intimate look behind the arras, rubbed its hands and decided to publish without looking over its shoulder.
It is what newspapers do – particularly Sunday newspapers looking for something - anything - to publish beyond the growing tedium of the latest minor skirmishes in the Brexit or Tory leadership battle.
It’s difficult to think of any journalist who would have declined to publish such revelations given the opportunity. They may make the business of government and international diplomacy more challenging but the only real answer is for those in possession of confidential or secret material to protect it better.
Because otherwise everything can leak eventually – everything – regardless of the often complex motives of those involved.