Was Isabel Oakeshott right to leak Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages? It’s complicated

Isabel Oakeshott has leaked over 100,000 WhatsApp messages which were entrusted to her by Matt Hancock (Images: PA/Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)Isabel Oakeshott has leaked over 100,000 WhatsApp messages which were entrusted to her by Matt Hancock (Images: PA/Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
Isabel Oakeshott has leaked over 100,000 WhatsApp messages which were entrusted to her by Matt Hancock (Images: PA/Ian Forsyth/Getty Images) | PA/Getty
The journalist has defended leaking the former health secretary's private messages, using the public interest defence - but there are flaws in her argument

For most of us, there has been a completely understandable desire to move on from the Covid-19 pandemic and almost pretend it never happened. It’s stark how little it now gets mentioned in the daily discourse, given its recency. The lockdown era we lived through is not one that anyone is keen to revisit.

But not everyone did live through the pandemic, of course, and countless families have been left without loved ones as a result of coronavirus ripping through the population from the spring of 2020 onwards.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

So there are important questions that need to be answered about how the government handled the crisis. Relatives and friends of those who succumbed to the virus, whether they were residents of care homes or NHS workers on the frontline, deserve answers. As do the estimated two million people in the UK still suffering the effects of long Covid.

Until this week, it was presumed that the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, which held its first preliminary hearing last month, would be the source of these answers. This isn’t just about the past, it’s also about how the government tackles future crises, with one of the inquiry’s aims to “highlight where lessons identified from preparedness and the response to the pandemic may be applicable to other civil emergencies”.

However, on Wednesday the public inquiry was completely overshadowed by the bombshell of The Telegraph’s ‘Lockdown Files’. This tranche of more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages which former health secretary Matt Hancock had (somewhat foolishly) entrusted to journalist Isabel Oakeshott has now generated headlines for several days, with revelations of ministers bickering and joking about issues like care home testing, schools reopening, lockdown policing and even a proposal at one point to cull the UK’s domestic cat population.

But the series, which The Telegraph no doubt hopes to be compared to its landmark MPs’ expenses investigation of 2009, raises as many questions around journalistic ethics as it does around the response to the pandemic.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Was Oakeshott right to betray Hancock’s trust and leak the messages because she thought it was in the public interest? This breaks one of the most fundamental rules of the trade, that you don’t break the trust of your source, even if they are a former government minister hoping to cash in with the publication of their memoirs. Journalists have gone to jail in the past rather than give up their confidential sources to the authorities - by contrast, one of Oakeshott's previous sources, Vicky Pryce, went to prison herself after an email correspondence with the then Sunday Times reporter was revealed in court.

Explaining her decision to go public with the Hancock messages this week, Oakeshott claimed that the inquiry will not produce answers for potentially up to ten years, and “another pandemic could happen at any point”. She is correct that the inquiry has taken a ridiculous amount of time to get started - with some nations having completed their own Covid inquiries already - but to suggest it will last a decade is disingenuous, when there is mounting political pressure that it’s wrapped up this year (however likely that is).

Her impassioned appeal to “overwhelming public interest” may carry some weight, and she says she’s been inundated with praise from victims’ families, but given that the inquiry will have full access to Hancock’s WhatsApp messages, and more besides, it cannot be claimed that these revelations were never going to see the light of day. And why was she not as concerned with public interest while she was being paid to ghost-write Hancock’s book?

Another question that’s been asked is around Oakeshott’s motivation for leaking the messages. She has been a prominent critic of the lockdown policy over the past few years, frequently appearing on shows like Question Time, calling it an “unmitigated disaster”. Her argument would carry more weight if she had been less of an impassioned voice in the debate.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

And why have the messages not been published in full? It appears that The Telegraph does not want rival news organisations poring over the texts, potentially finding stories before they do. Understandable, but again, this strategy does detract from Oakeshott’s public interest defence.

As for Hancock, he is a figure who inspires many emotions, but sympathy is not one of them. He is a vain, grasping, insincere, insecure, spectacularly daft and unbelievably naive human being, whose rise to political power says a lot about the dearth of talent in the Tory Party. However, the wider impact of his agreement with a journalist being broken is that sources, whether politicians or members of the public, could become reluctant to work with any journalists on potentially sensitive stories.

No-one is calling for details of important government policy to be kept secret, and the decisions that were taken during the pandemic need to be scrutinised - it’s what the victims deserve.

But this needs to be done properly, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that, while Oakeshott and The Telegraph have clearly landed an attention-grabbing scoop, the nature of its drip-fed release leaves a bad taste.

Do you have a view on this article? Email [email protected]. Sign up for our daily newsletter for free at www.nationalworld.com/newsletter

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.