Telegraph’s Lockdown Files are welcome, warts and all

Telegraph’s Lockdown Files are welcome, warts and all
Matt Hancock: 'I'm a Celebrity..'. contestant, author, and MP

The Daily Telegraph‘s “Lockdown Files” are a novel development in political journalism and a new brand of historical record-keeping.


The traditional gothic type of The Daily Telegraph masthead is almost overshadowed these days by what looks like a dramatic alternative title: “THE LOCKDOWN FILES.”

It is a bold way of introducing the Telegraph’s biggest scoop since the MPs expenses scandal in 2009 – the leak of more than 100,000 confidential WhatsApp messages and 2.3 million words, involving former Health Secretary Matt Hancock as he struggled with the enormity of the Covid crisis in 2020.

After thousands of Telegraph words, day after day, we all know the main bones of the main stories that have been revealed.

The most dramatic was how Hancock rejected the advice of the Chief Medical Officer Prof Chris Whitty to test all residents going into English care homes, apparently to help him meet self-imposed testing targets.

There were the rows with Education Secretary Sir Gavin Williamson over closure of the schools, with Hancock an unsuccessful hardliner in school closure to try to avoid the spread of the virus.

According to the Telegraph, Hancock was reluctant to cut the existing 14-day quarantine period to five days because it would “imply we’ve been getting it wrong”.

Then, of course there were the rows with then Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak over the extent of the lockdown rules and their damaging effects on the economy.

In the public interest?

Yet as a Telegraph team of more than 20 journalists continue to mine the WhatsApp messages from the heart of government, one abiding question still requires an answer.

Was it right for The Daily Telegraph to publish, and to be continuing to publish, such confidential material, when an official inquiry into the Covid pandemic has already been set up?

With the MPs expenses scandal, the issue of publication could hardly have been more clear-cut.

Even though it was virtually impossible for the material to have been obtained by strictly legal methods and without money changing hands, there was an overwhelming public interest in publication. Such material could never have become public in any other way and publication led not just to exposure but reform.

The case of “THE LOCKDOWN FILES” is rather more murky.

As is well known, the files came to the Daily Telegraph via the journalist Isabel Oakeshott who got them, under a confidentiality agreement, to be able to write Matt Hancock’s book The Pandemic Diaries. It is clear that if he now chooses to do so, Hancock could sue Oakeshott for breach of that agreement and her main defence would have to be that wider, wholesale publication was in the public interest.

As Hancock has been quick to argue, any public interest defence could be weakened by the fact that he had already handed over the entire cache to the inquiry being led by Baroness Heather Hallett, who will take the first formal evidence in June.

Hancock has also been suggesting that the Telegraph’s use of material could be partial and selective because both Oakeshott and the paper were in the anti-lockdown camp during the pandemic.

Oakeshott’s main defence is one of timeliness and accountability. She fears it may be many years before the official inquiry reaches its verdict. “That’s why I have decided to release this sensational cache of private communications – because we absolutely cannot wait any longer for answers,” she wrote in the Telegraph.

She also noted that lawyers were already at work redacting the names of civil servants from thousands of documents. “It is hard not to imagine the whole thing may become a colossal whitewash,” Oakeshott added.

The future of record keeping

If not that, you can be pretty sure that not all of the scandalous detail in the Telegraph files will ever make it in to an official report.

There are other arguments in favour of openness, as historians such as Andrew Roberts, have argued. Once there were lots of documents and politicians kept paper diaries. Now, in general, they don’t.

Where is the record of history to be found in the future as memories fade and electronic files expire or are deleted?

Roberts, speaking to Spectator editor Fraser Nelson before the current revelations, suggested that WhatsApp messages could make all the difference.

“WhatsApp will be the Alan Clark Diaries of the future. They’d offer an immediacy that historians have never had before — if we could ever come into possession of them,” Roberts said.

Historians can now, at least with this huge tranche of contemporary history focussed on one explosive topic that affected just about everyone in society.

Information Commissioner John Edwards believes that the Telegraph’s investigation “exposes how WhatsApp messages were used to discuss and decide key government business during the pandemic.”

Writing in the Telegraph, Edwards believes the episode “underlies the importance of maintaining a public record of these private transcripts for transparency, accountability and lesson learning in the future.”

What is unlikely to appear in any official report

The small but revealing stories which would never appear in an official report — such as the MPs who claimed expenses for his duck house — are just as interesting.

Then there was the health official who personally delivered a Covid test to the home of Jacob Rees-Mogg for one of his children at a time when Hancock was issuing “heartfelt apologies to anyone who cannot get a Covid test at present.”

There is also the small matter, also unlikely to appear in any official report, was the extent to which politicians seemed to be over-interested in how any decision they took would play out in the media and affect their climb up the greasy pole, sometimes less than any strict immediate public interests.

With considerable flair, The Daily Telegraph almost created a new medium by turning the pictures of Matt Hancock’s office affair into a WhatsApp comic strip.

Hancock: How bad are the pics?

Damon Poole: It’s a snog and heavy petting.

Hancock: How the fuck did anyone photograph that?

Poole: Fuck knows.

Apart from such important revelations, the Telegraph’s Lockdown Files are very welcome, warts and all. They are in the overwhelmingly in the public interest and it is difficult to see any national newspaper looking such a gift horse in the mouth.

Such release of information — as long as there is a leaker whatever their motive — could lead to not just new political journalism but a new vibrant, living form of contemporary history.

Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.

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