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Hancock WhatsApp leak is karma for government’s failures on transparency

OPINION: Former health secretary refused to hand over official diaries, then wrote his own version of history instead

Ramzy 001.jpg
Ramzy Alwakeel
1 March 2023, 1.04pm

Former health secretary Matt Hancock, whose Whatsapp messages have been reported on by The Telegraph


Rob Pinney / Stringer

It would almost be easy to feel a little sorry for Matt Hancock.

Imagine someone leaking your entire WhatsApp history to a national newspaper. Of course, if that person was already a journalist, and you had given them the messages so they could write a book about what a good job you did as health secretary, some might question your judgement. But putting that to one side, the payload that Matt Hancock handed over to Isabel Oakeshott was apparently not something he had meant to see the light of day – not like this, anyway.

Matt Hancock, like so many who ran the country during the pandemic, is evidently a very private person. His WhatsApp history is not the only thing he has tried to keep secret.

And that, the way we see it at openDemocracy, is a problem.

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Hancock’s team – such a thing still, apparently, exists – sprang into action this morning to issue a furious rebuttal to the Telegraph’s story. “These stolen messages have been doctored to create a false story,” a spokesperson fumed, accusing the Telegraph of “spinning” the facts.

That may or may not be the case. It may also be true that WhatsApp messages aren’t the best way to understand what went on at the heart of No.10 (in which case, one has to ask why Hancock gave them to Oakeshott in the first place).

But Hancock’s anger would be a little easier to swallow had he, his health department, and his government not spent two years blockading the release of (potentially) more reliable information to journalists through official means.

My colleague Jenna Corderoy first asked the Department for Health and Social Care for Matt Hancock’s official ministerial diaries back in March 2021.

We still haven’t got them, even though Hancock (and Oakeshott) have managed to publish an entire book on the subject in the meantime. And the government has tried just about every excuse to avoid complying with their duties under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. First they said our request was “vexatious”. Then they told us we had asked for too much information and it would cost them too much to supply it. Last year, they even said ministers’ official diaries would be of “limited value” to the public.

Next, we tried to get hold of the “lessons learnt” pandemic review the government held internally in 2021. The government didn’t like that, either, going as far as threatening to take its own information watchdog (and, by extension, openDemocracy) to court to avoid giving it up.

We use FOI experts like Jenna to force information out of the government. And we don’t back down easily. openDemocracy is still fighting for the information to be released, preparing for a series of tribunals at which we will make the case for everyone’s right to know.

We have been extremely successful at this work in the past. But it is costly, both in terms of time and resources, and we rely on reader donations to keep us going. And in the meantime, government secrecy is steadily getting worse. Our 2021 report ‘Access Denied’ found that 2020, the year the pandemic hit Britain, had been the worst year on record for political transparency in the UK.

So to go back to Hancock: does the former health secretary, whose government had so little respect for transparency, really have a leg to stand on here? At the very least, it’s pretty rich for him to complain now that the public isn’t getting the full picture.

Perhaps we will finally learn the truth about what went on via the official Covid-19 inquiry, which begins taking evidence in the summer. openDemocracy is fundraising to send a reporter to cover every day of the inquiry; it’s the only way we can guarantee the public will be kept informed. Disappointingly, there are already concerns about the running of the inquiry itself, from a potential conflict of interest (revealed by openDemocracy last month) to a refusal to consider the impact of structural racism on the way different people were affected by Covid. Either way, scrutiny of the proceedings, and of the material that comes out of them, is vital.

And as the inquiry begins, perhaps the lesson for Number 10 is this: keep secrets at your own peril.

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