Labour cannot shrug off the charge of hypocrisy over the arrest of the Conservative shadow minister Damian Green because under the Blair and Brown governments successive Home Secretaries have engaged in the deliberate and systematic leaking of their own decisions in order to gain political advantage.
Jacqui Smith’s private office at the Home Office was no different to any other in Whitehall. Right across the various government departments, Labour’s political spin doctors have shown scant regard for the confidentiality of ministerial announcements and they have regularly been trailed in advance through leaks to sympathetic journalists.
The poisonous legacy of Tony Blair’s action in doubling and then trebling the number of ministerial special advisers has been a rapid acceleration in the politicisation of the flow of information from the state to the news media.
Even though young civil servants have had to sign the Official Secrets Act it is no wonder they might occasionally be tempted to leak information. They work alongside special advisers who also have the status of temporary civil servants but who are not subject to the same rules and who have the freedom to pass on confidential data to journalists.
Tipping off newspapers about the content of forthcoming announcements has become a way of life under New Labour. When Jacqui Smith defended the Metropolitan Police for arresting the twenty-six-year old civil servant Christopher Galley and the Conservative shadow minister Damian Green she complained about there having been “a systematic series of leaks from the department which deals with some of the most sensitive confidential information in the government”.
But she could just as easily have been giving the job description of one of the many Labour Party spin doctors working at the heart of the government. There has been a systematic trailing of Home Office decisions on her watch, just as there was during the tenure of her predecessors who showed the same cavalier disregard for parliamentary conventions by pre-empting announcements.
The last of the leaks which preceded the arrests of Galley and Green related to the impact on crime of the economic downturn. “Crunch will send crime soaring” was the Daily Mail’s front-page headline (1.9.2008) over its report about the leak of a “dynamite draft letter” from Ms Smith to the Prime Minister predicting a sharp rise in burglary and violence.
Perhaps the Home Secretary has chosen to overlook the exclusive stories which her own spin doctors have leaked to the News of the World:
“War on Guns” -- an exclusive front-page splash about Ms Smith’s plan to announce a “dramatic gun amnesty to clean up Britain’s streets of fear”. (News of the World 26.8.2007)
“It’s victory for Sarah” -- an exclusive report confirming that the Home Secretary would “push ahead with plans to protect kids from paedophiles in a major victory for our Sarah’s law campaign”. (News of the World 17.2.2008)
The failure of New Labour to recognise their own double standards beggars belief. Lance Price, a former BBC correspondent who became a Downing Street spin doctor, revealed all when writing about Green’s arrest for the Daily Telegraph (29.11.2008).
He admitted that during the early years of his premiership Tony Blair routinely leaked information which pre-empted government announcements. Price’s account of the hidden trade between politicians and the news media can hardly be bettered:
“I sat in on briefings with senior journalists in which he (Blair) would reveal, ahead of time, the government’s plans in one area or another. It was my job to do the same on an almost daily basis, and I was paid from the public purse for the privilege”.
Gordon Brown’s difficulty in attempting to castigate Damian Green is twofold: not only was Brown an assiduous exploiter of leaked documents during his days in Opposition, but he has also become the Labour government’s most prolific and longest-serving trader in government secrets.
Brown learned the hard way how to cover his tracks. He did not repeat, for example, the mistake he made in a BBC Breakfast interview in 1985 when he owned up to the presenter Frank Bough about the origin of a leak about the latest estimates for supplementary benefits.
Brown: “I was given them by a civil servant who was as concerned as I was about a government that misled people”.
Bough: “You’ve got a very good mole in there, haven’t you?”
Brown: “Well, I don’t know, I’ve got someone who’s very concerned about the public interest”.
A decade later when he was shadow Chancellor he took greater care not to be caught off guard. In November 1993 he obtained a leaked copy of the government’s latest review of social security and after being interviewed with the document in a report for Breakfast with Frost he complained that it could be seen in close up.
Brown demanded that the shot should be removed from all further news bulletins because he had said “seventeen times that no minister should see it”…and he wanted to “make sure if Virginia Bottomley (Secretary of State for Health) is interviewed by On The Record she doesn’t get to see it”.
But Brown’s quote to end all quotes was from Budget day in 1996 after Labour had made use of an illicitly-acquired document which contained most of the key announcements and which the shadow Chancellor’s aides leaked so comprehensively that it torpedoed Kenneth Clarke’s final Budget for the Conservatives.
“1p off tax today” was the front-page headline in the Sun which thanks to the help of spin doctors like Charlie Whelan correctly pre-empted most of Clarke’s announcements.
But when he was interviewed that morning on Today, Brown could hardly have sounded any more upstanding. He said that when he personally was offered the chance to read the 94-page pack of Treasury press releases, he refused. With a general election only months away, Brown must have looked over his shoulder momentarily, remembered his own questionable behaviour in the past, and realised that as the likely future Chancellor it was time, at least in public, to play by the rules of Whitehall and to start attacking leakers.
Had Margaret Thatcher still been in the House of Commons, she would not doubt have been incandescent at the effrontery of Brown’s answer on Today:
“Nobody can condone the leak of sensitive Budget matters the day before the Budget…The most important thing to recognise is that the civil servant who did this is serving no public purpose. I don’t think anyone should condone the action”.
In his decade as Chancellor, Brown progressively disregarded virtually all the ballyhoo about pre-Budget purdah and the traditional secrecy surrounding the contents of the Budget box.
During his long years in opposition Brown had become a regular conduit for publicising confidential documents leaked to him by civil servants and he was admired for the way he could put them to good use when attacking the Conservatives.
In distributing his leaks and tip-offs among the political correspondents of Westminster, he had made some friends for life. Once Labour were in power, he demonstrated an equally deft touch when making use of the journalists he could trust. The press build-up his Budgets and financial statements was always carefully manipulated to prepare the ground for any changes which he intended to make and Brown has continued as Prime Minister to be Labour’s leading exponent of institutionalised leaking.