Matt Hancock is a national embarrassment. There have been plenty of stupider secretaries of state, and more immoral ones, and even more incompetent ones. But none have been quite so naff. From going into the jungle to eat an animal’s testicles on TV, to pretending he can be cleared of all blame for his actions because he was in love, to promoting NFTs – the totem of cyberbro hucksters the world over – he is a pitiful specimen of a politician who demonstrates quite how low standards in public life have fallen.
This is all true. But something else is also true: the attack he is currently being subjected to is an attempt to spread an anti-lockdown Covid conspiracy mentality, pursued through a complete collapse in basic journalistic standards.
This morning, The Telegraph published the first of its “Lockdown Files”, based on tens of thousands of Hancock’s WhatsApp messages. It was handed these files by Isabel Oakeshott, who had secured them when she was hired by Hancock to co-write his pitifully self-aggrandising memoirs about the pandemic.
In other words, Oakeshott took the documents she had been handed in good faith by a source and a co-author and handed them over to a newspaper with the consequence of doing him maximum political damage.
Hancock himself is not blameless in this. He trusted someone who hated lockdown to help him write his diaries, which is foolish in the extreme, and in doing so he handed over private government communication without the consent of the message recipients. But what Oakeshott has done is worse. She has taken the one moral principle journalists must live by – do not betray your source – and trampled all over it.
Without this principle in place, journalism cannot function, because no one will ever talk to us. Sources put their life in your hands. Your commitment as a journalist – really the only thing this job ever asks of you – is to never, ever betray that trust.
Oakeshott does not appear to take this responsibility seriously. Almost exactly a decade ago, her source Vicky Pryce was sent to jail as a result of one of her stories. Once upon a time, journalists would swear to go to jail to protect their sources. Oakeshott went the other way. “We were forced by a judge to give up the correspondence,” she said, “along with copies of our written agreement with Vicky.”
In fact, as made clear at the time by director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer (remember him?), she and the newspaper initially protested but then “subsequently consented to producing the material in question just before the appeal was due to be heard”.
Now she’s done something similar. It doesn’t only affect her credibility. It impacts on all of us. I spent last year talking to people on condition of anonymity for my book on how Westminster works. If they didn’t trust me, they wouldn’t talk, because it meant they could lose their career. How much harder will it be to convince people you can be trusted in future when they see this is how journalists behave?
Oakeshott has been quite clear about her views. Lockdowns were a “reckless overreaction to a disease that was only life-threatening to a small number of people”, she said. The campaign to vaccinate everyone rather than just the very elderly or vulnerable was “one of the most extraordinary cases of mission creep in political history”.
The reality is that lockdowns were necessary to prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths. If they had been done earlier, they would not have had to last so long, but they were repeatedly delayed by precisely the sort of anti-lockdown gibberish Oakeshott herself does so much to spread. Vaccinations were expanded to the middle-aged and the young because it helped prevent the spread of Covid, reduced deaths and serious illness in that age group, and limited the cases of long Covid.
It’s being done cleverly, in a way that will attract those across the political divide who are critical of the former health secretary’s performance. Today’s story, which is dominating the airwaves, is that Hancock waived the need to test those going into care from the community while testing those who were entering care homes from hospital. Very damning. But what we lack is any context to that claim. Hancock says that this followed a meeting with the testing team in which it was clear that there weren’t enough tests for both cohorts, so he was forced to make a call between them.
Maybe Hancock is right. Maybe The Telegraph is. We don’t know, because we are receiving information shorn of context, published by a lockdown-sceptical newspaper with a clear agenda. You can see that broader agenda in Fraser Nelson’s column for the newspaper today, claiming the story shows that “the diktats were political guesswork masquerading as science”. It’s not hard to see where that argument is going.
The right place for this material is either with an outlet that will play it straight, or, better still, with the official inquiry. Hancock says the inquiry already has access to all these messages, but Oakeshott was not ready to wait. In justifying why she jumped the gun and betrayed her co-author, she says: “I had to release Matt Hancock’s Covid WhatsApp messages to avoid a whitewash.”
So there it is. Another conspiracy theory. The inquiry is already a whitewash, despite the fact it hasn’t even properly started yet.
This is not some great piece of public interest journalism. It looks like a journalist betraying the most basic of all ethical standards to pursue an anti-lockdown agenda through a newspaper which shares her values. The damage to national debate is significant. But not as significant as the long-term damage to journalism’s credibility.