openDemocracyUK: Opinion

What is UK government hiding on WhatsApp? We have no idea – that’s the problem

We know Boris Johnson asked Lord Brownlow for money for his flat refurb because the latter kept the messages. But what has been deleted?

Cori Crider headshot
Cori Crider
7 January 2022, 4.57pm
Boris Johnson's government is accused of conducting official business over WhatsApp
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

It’s a day ending in a ‘y’, so Downing Street is facing allegations of corruption.

This one’s a reprise of last year’s ‘loaded Lord secretly pays for deluxe refurb of the PM’s flat’ scandal – £840-a-roll wallpaper and all.

If you missed it, Boris Johnson tried to cadge thousands from one Lord Brownlow, a Tory donor, by slagging off Number 10, which was a “bit of a tip”, according to the prime minister.

This is nothing you haven’t seen before, right?

Get our free Daily Email

Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.

But scrape back the gold wallpaper and you’ll find the mouldy plaster and stench of a darker story underneath – one with huge implications for our democracy.

Johnson’s pleas for cash appear to have taken place over a single private chat service: WhatsApp. And, if you care about the health of your democracy, that should worry you.

Messages on apps such as WhatsApp or Signal can be set to automatically delete, either immediately after a conversation or after a set period. And, once they’ve been deleted by both the sender and recipients, that’s it – they’re gone for good. The government should be archiving key messages of decisions, but it’s not.

When there is a formal inquiry into the government’s handling of COVID, a swathe of the public record could be missing

This is the modern equivalent of shredding documents, except much more quickly. And it reduces the chances of reconstructing the evidence from ‘slim’ to ‘none’.

No problem, you might think, if all you want to do is delete an ill-advised late-night text to your ex.

But how about when Johnson, for example, was alleged to have been in contact via WhatsApp with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia about the prince’s bid to buy Newcastle United – in the face of huge concerns over the fitness of the bid? (When pressed on the matter, Downing Street refused to confirm or deny that such a conversation had taken place, though it admitted Johnson had asked a top aide to “check on the progress of the talks on a potential major foreign investment in the UK”.)

It’s not just about Saudi royalty and their playthings, either. The use of these ‘disappearing messages’ is rampant in the government.

That includes in the government’s response to COVID. Johnson’s former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, last year revealed that high-level discussions between himself and the prime minister and other members of government, over the struggling test and trace system and shortages of ventilators, had routinely taken place over WhatsApp.

And, as Byline Times has reported, fateful discussions over whether to release patients without negative COVID tests from hospital into care homes were also allegedly carried out on WhatsApp.

The newspaper reported a government source as having said: “The entire COVID-19 response was being conducted over WhatsApp messages.” 

Related story

London, England, UK. 5th July, 2021. UK Prime Minister BORIS JOHNSON returns 10 Downing Street after a press conference where he announced lifting of covid restrictions such as mask wearing and social distancing from 19th of July.
Cabinet Office admits taking Tory donations to fund refurb, before bills were finally paid by the prime minister

Here’s the thing. The Downing Street wallpaper WhatsApp messages survived because Lord Brownlow kept hold of his own copy of the conversation on his phone.

But how many more have been lost?

How many pieces of evidence that would be vital to our understanding of what happened to our country during this catastrophic pandemic have been quietly deleted forever – along with the chance of holding the people who made the decisions, and then destroyed the evidence, to account?

This is why Foxglove is helping non-profit group the Citizens take the government to court – in a case to be heard on 22 March – to ban the use of these disappearing messages across government.

As part of the case, the government has disclosed policies that show it isn’t meant to be using WhatsApp, Signal and the rest for official business at all.

When a judge finally takes up the formal inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic, looking into the deaths of some 150,000 of our fellow Britons, a swathe of the public record could be missing.

That is unacceptable. If we are ever going to understand what happened during these awful past few years, when so many of us have lost so much, that cannot be allowed to stand.

We cannot begin to grieve – and, one day, try to move on together – if the essential evidence about the decisions that were made has been shredded into thin air.

If you’d like to support our case, you can sign our petition on here. Please share it with anyone you know who cares about the future of our democracy.

We've got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you're interested in, there's a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData