Public interest?

A front page from the Mail on Sunday, with the headline "Trump axed Iran deal to spite Obama: as tensions mount in the Gulf, what the British ambassador told London about the President's act of 'diplomatic vandalism'". At the top, in white on a small red patch, are the words "Fighting for free speech") with quotes from Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson defending the right of the paper to publish the material.

So, last week the British ambassador to the USA resigned after Donald Trump wrote tweets denouncing him after his emails were leaked, thought to have been done by a Brexiteer mole who is out to destroy senior civil servants he sees as standing in the way of Brexit. Yesterday (Saturday) morning, the police were threatening to prosecute editors who published any new leaked material and they urged them to send it all back. This led to an outcry, with both MPs and various editors denouncing the threat as an attack on a “free society” and proclaiming such things as “this isn’t Russia”. The Mail on Sunday today (under a banner “Fighting for free speech”) published more material from the leaks, among them the opinion of Kim Darroch, the ambassador at the centre of the leaks, expressed in the leaked emails that Donald Trump only scrapped the nuclear deal with Iran to spite former president Barack Obama.

I was surprised to hear Tories pontificate about the importance of a “free society” when the matter at hand was the leaking of confidential material which is covered under the Official Secrets Act. In the past, Tory governments have prosecuted civil servants who leaked papers that proved that what the government had been telling the Commons was false (e.g. about the direction of the Belgrano, the Argentinian warship sank during the Falklands war), and passed tougher legislation to remove defences, such as “public interest”, used by whistle-blowers. We are even seeing Tory politicians threaten to suspend Parliament itself if it gets in the way of leaving the EU this coming October, and politicians and the media defend this in the name of “the people’s will” as expressed more than three years ago now — so much for their love of democracy; we regularly see people have to hide under blankets to avoid press photographers who decide they have a ‘right’ to a story; so much for their love of freedom. In this case, it is alleged that the leaks were not motivated by any desire to hold the powerful to account or expose malpractice but simply to further Brexit by intimidating other civil servants and possibly politicians who are not committed to Brexit. The newspapers or websites which might be motivated to publish such material are the ones committed to Brexit themselves. This material might be of interest to the public but there is no pretence of it being in the public interest; it is malicious.

As for the material published today (which was also linked to the demand to “hand back papers”), this is of lesser importance as the damage had already been done in terms of forcing the former ambassador’s resignation. But publishing confidential material is illegal, and it is illegal for a reason, and whatever the rights and wrongs of doing so to expose wrongdoing, to do this to further your own political agenda, in collaboration with powerful factions in society that share that agenda, is simply dishonest and treacherous and is not supported by free speech laws anywhere. It is only right that any new leaks be met with the full force of the law, and the same for anyone publishing them.

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