OPINION: Time to rewrite the definition of a leak

One day I shall write a book entitled The anatomy of a leak. I am well qualified to do so since the Lobby, more in hope than expectation, said I was ’licensed to leak’. There is some truth in their claim, even though, like the Government Information Service, I was invariably the most continent part of any Government I served. All press secretaries have to take snap decisions in briefing journalists on how far to go with their knowledge.

One day I shall write a book entitled The anatomy of a leak. I am

well qualified to do so since the Lobby, more in hope than expectation,

said I was ’licensed to leak’. There is some truth in their claim, even

though, like the Government Information Service, I was invariably the

most continent part of any Government I served. All press secretaries

have to take snap decisions in briefing journalists on how far to go

with their knowledge.



If they go too far, they either have to be endorsed or repudiated. Since

they cannot regularly be repudiated for ’leaking’ and remain in office,

they have to be careful.



But is briefing which goes too far leaking? Indeed, what is a leak? We

should be clear as Mr Blair’s Government wallows in a mire of spin,

malicious gossip and ... leaks. The definition of a leak is ’an

unauthorised disclosure of information’. In Government, only ministers

can authorise disclosure.



So, the Westland affair in 1986, was not a leak because Leon Brittan,

then-Trade Secretary, authorised it. It became a leak because he did not

consult the other ministers involved in correspondence between the

Solicitor General and Michael Heseltine. In practice, ministers and

bosses often authorise leaks after the event. They find it easiest to do

so when they have done no real damage and others interested in the issue

don’t make a fuss. In the normal course of a week there is a great deal

of post-hoccery, as it is described. Government in its widest sense

could not be carried on unless there were. So does the old definition of

a leak still serve? I believe we need a new one.



The Government’s practice of briefing selected journalists on the

substance of forthcoming announcements - a ploy sanctioned by the

Government’s new rules - cramps the old definition. It makes a nonsense

of Parliament’s requirement to be told first but MPs have only

themselves to blame for surrendering their privilege. I have never

regarded briefing on options as leaking, although it is dangerous

because the media usually find the best story in the most extreme

option. Ministers have always indulged in another form of ’leaking’

called kite-flying to test public opinion.



That seems reasonable in a democracy. And these days all official bodies

have to devise arrangements for whistleblowing - ie. leaking to right a

perceived wrong.



After all this, there isn’t much left to safeguard against leaks other

than security, commercial and personal data and the boss’s

convenience.



There wouldn’t be much support for a definition which made the boss’s

life more comfortable. So what are we left with? Isn’t the real test -

beyond protecting categories of restricted material - whether there was

an unauthorised disclosure with malicious intent to damage? On this

basis, Mr Blair presides over a very leaky Government indeed.



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