We need to talk about these leaks

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Many were outraged by the guardianscoop yesterday. That image of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Downing Street staff drinking cheese and wine in the garden of No. 10 last May, in violation of lockdown restrictions, struck many as unfair and hypocritical.

Like the leaked video from a few weeks ago, of former spokeswoman No. 10, Allegra Stratton, joking, during a mock press conference, about the Christmas party that broke the Downing Street blockade last year.

The smug reaction of the press to these leaked images follows a pattern that began in the summer, when images were leaked showing then-health secretary Matt Hancock hugging his assistant, Gina Coladangelo, in his office.

At a time when the British public is feeling anxious and frustrated by what seems like an endless pandemic, it is understandable that people react angrily to see politicians and officials seemingly having a good time.

The media takes advantage of people’s frustration and encourages the public to interpret these images as a personal insult. Readers and viewers are encouraged to insist on the comparison between their lives and those of a group of shocked officials who laugh at their expense.

Allegra Stratton’s now-infamous comments were presented as a calculated insult to anyone in the mood to feel aggrieved. Stimulating readers’ appetite for another leak solution, the Independent ran with the headline: “Party Tapes: Could There Be More Clips From Allegra Stratton’s Mock Press Conference?”

I can also understand why the opposition parties are so excited about these stories. For an ineffective Labor opposition, the leaks provide a weapon with which to attack the government.

The government certainly deserves a good kick for the inept and selfish way in which it handles its affairs. But there is something deeply troubling when opposition parties are so devoid of ideals and policies that they sustain themselves through a diet of leaks.

More importantly, amid the media orchestrated hysteria surrounding these leaks, a very important question has been overlooked: what happens when a government cannot keep its procedures confidential?

Just look again at the photograph of the prime minister and his staff sitting around the table in garden # 10. For the press, this image offers an opportunity to cultivate public outrage. But what’s really disturbing is that someone with an agenda was able to take this picture in the first place and then put it in the public domain.

For me, the photograph and the position from which it was taken are signs of a serious security breach. This image, secretly taken from on high, indicates that the prime minister’s private garden is anything but private. A building that should be one of the safest places in the country has become too open for those who wish to undermine the integrity of the government.

Those who are delighted with the shame that the government has suffered should step back and think about the implications of this story for national security.

What’s more, leaks are corrosive to good governance. Earlier this week, details of potential new Covid restrictions to be announced on Boxing Day were leaked to the media. Once official contingency plans become food to fuel the news cycle, a government’s ability to implement them effectively is undermined.

It is disturbing that the British state appears incapable of maintaining its internal security. If ministers cannot safely deliberate, knowing that their decisions and plans will not be made public, the government loses its integrity.

This problem was highlighted during Theresa May’s time as Prime Minister. In 2016, he launched an investigation into a ‘series of corrosive leaks’, after a letter from the cabinet secretary, warning staff against leaking government secrets, was leaked to the press.

The leak of a letter warning about the leak problem indicated that Theresa May and her officials were not in control. Just as the proliferation of shameful leaks under the Johnson regime serves as testimony to its lack of control over the civil service, ministers and the state.

You don’t have to be a government supporter to worry about this state of affairs. An elected government that is repeatedly frustrated by state employees cannot effectively discharge its duties to the nation. This is a threat to national security and good governance.

Those who want to turn No10 into the Eldest brother House should realize that there is much more at stake here than the humiliation of its current occupants.

Frank Furedi‘s 100 years of identity crisis: culture war for socialization It is published by De Gruyter.

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