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Some criticism of journalist who leaked Hancock’s messages grounded in expectations women should play nice

Matt Hancock vs Isabel Oakeshott? It’s just a shame one side has to win

The case of Matt Hancock versus the journalist who “massively betrayed” him struck many commentators last week as a bit like a version of the ‘would you rather’ game children play on car journeys. Would you rather be in jail for five years or be in a coma for a decade? Would you rather have Hancock or a mantis shrimp in charge of health in a pandemic? Do we really have to pick a side? I liked the version offered by former BBC journalist turned podcaster Jon Sopel. “It’s like Kissinger on the Iran-Iraq War. It’s a shame one side has to win.”

The background is that Hancock recruited Isabel Oakeshott, a former Sunday Times political editor, to ghostwrite his memoir. He got her to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and then handed her 100,000 highly confidential WhatsApp messages. (At least some were highly confidential; quite a lot were presumably deadly dull.) Oakeshott did what Oakeshott does, and leaked the lot, all 2.3 million words of them.

The Daily Telegraph has been trawling through them and publishing the best bits. So far, they’re mostly interesting for the picture they paint of how big decisions affecting entire populations were made during a time of global chaos, when normal politics was suspended. On the fly, is the short answer.

The most immediate questions this raises aren’t about the Tory government’s handling of the pandemic, but about Hancock’s judgment. The astonishing thing is not that Oakeshott betrayed his confidence, it is that she ever had it in the first place. She is a lockdown sceptic and ardent Brexiteer, with previous form leaking confidential messages. She offered to work on his memoir for free. The alarm bells should have been bonging like the Angelus in St Peter’s Square.


Hancock described the leak as a “massive betrayal and breach of trust”. This struck some observers as slightly lacking in self-awareness, coming as it did from someone who broke his own lockdown rules to carry on an affair with his married aide, and then attempted to rehabilitate himself by eating kangaroo anus in the jungle, while the families of care home residents grieved. He subsequently rushed out his diaries in a crass attempt to cash in. Judgment and Matt Hancock are not well acquainted.

A journalist’s obligation to protect their sources is absolute. But Hancock isn’t so much a source as a client

The reason for the opprobrium being heaped on Oakeshott is less straightforward, and at least some of it feels steeped in gendered expectations about how women are supposed to play nice. The Guardian described her as someone “with a reputation for burning sources (one of them went to prison as a result)”. This is a reference to a story she broke in the Sunday Times in 2011 about how Liberal Democrat minister Chris Huhne persuaded his ex-wife to take his speeding points. Both Huhne and his ex, Vicky Pryce subsequently served eight months in jail for perverting the course of justice.

Questions were asked afterwards about whether Oakeshott had a duty of care to warn Pryce against going public and whether she exploited their friendship. Subsequently, Oakeshott wrote a biography of Leave. EU founder Arron Banks, and later published his texts and emails which revealed more dealings with Russia than he had previously admitted.

A few key facts got lost in the outpouring of what felt like manufactured outrage over the leaking of the lockdown files. The first is that there is an undeniable public interest argument in their publication. This isn’t the third class parents’ WhatsApp group; it was the forum where pandemic policy decisions affecting the lives of millions of British people were decided.

There is a separate conversation to be had about the business of any government happening on an encrypted messaging service, and what that means for democracy and future historical records. But there’s no argument about whether these messages meet the public interest bar. You don’t have to be a lockdown sceptic to recognise the huge toll the restrictions took on society, or to see the value in understanding the decision making.

The second, more important, point is that Hancock had already approved them going into the public domain, but he wanted her to hand them over to the Covid inquiry. She points out that the inquiry has already taken months and has no deadline (which still puts it significantly ahead of the Irish equivalent that will only get going this year.) So the question of whether there was a breach of journalistic ethics may come down to the precise nature of her agreement with Hancock, and whether it is outweighed by the public interest.

A journalist’s obligation to protect their sources is absolute. But Hancock isn’t a whistleblower, a member of the public, or an insider providing her with background information. He’s a former government minister who worked with her on his memoir – not so much a source as a client.

Yes, Oakeshott broke an NDA – but that’s a contractual matter rather than one of journalistic ethics. I suspect the real reason for the vitriol directed at her is that it isn’t clear if she is primarily a journalist or an activist, a line that is becoming worryingly blurred. Her partner is Richard Tice, the leader of Reform UK, which was previously known as the Brexit Party. She is an anti-masker, a lockdown sceptic who said she offered her services to Hancock in order to “find out what really happened”.

In the end, nobody comes out of this well: not the ridiculous Hancock; not Oakeshott, who may struggle to get that next book deal; not the media, who can only do our jobs if people know they can trust us.

But it wasn’t Oakeshott’s behaviour that did the most damage there. That’s down to the journalists who seemed to want to have it both ways – only pausing in their furious indignation over Oakeshott’s behaviour to gorge on her revelations.