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
After all this, there isn’t much left to safeguard against leaks other
than security, commercial and personal data and the boss’s
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.