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Government by WhatsApp: like a chat in the corridor?

Johnson and Sunak at a pizza restaurant in 2020. Heathcliff O’Malley/Getty

It’s easy to see the fight over Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages as an “impenetrable tussle between privacy and transparency”, says Hugo Rifkind in The Times. Why, you might ask, should politicians’ private messages be raked over by some jobsworth on an independent inquiry? That’s certainly the view of the government, which has insisted that many of its Covid-era WhatsApps were “unambiguously irrelevant” or “personal or sensitive”. The former health minister Lord Bethell, for example, has said some of his correspondence was with the parents of his children’s schoolfriends – though, comically, he rather undermined his argument by adding that these parents included MPs, ministers, entrepreneurs and “suppliers to the government”.

Downing Street’s position is that “because some WhatsApps are private, the default assumption should be that they all are”. That’s nonsense. The names of some of the Covid-era groups – “No 10/DHSC/Covid-19”, for example – make it perfectly clear that they were “official channels of communication”. The courts ruled last year that government WhatsApp messages didn’t have to be kept for the National Archives because they were akin to “a conversation with an adviser in a corridor”. That makes sense for one-off messages – but setting up a whole group to discuss certain issues amounts, in effect, to “a conscious decision to hold all meetings in a corridor”. We need to stop this confusion, if necessary with a new law to distinguish between private and public messages. Because if we don’t, every future government inquiry, on all manner of issues, will get stuck in the same “grey area”.

🕵️‍♂️🗓 When the Hutton Inquiry was ordered in 2003 to look into the death of weapons inspector David Kelly, says Alastair Campbell on The Rest is Politics, I got a letter requesting my unredacted diaries. I wasn’t happy about it, but the cabinet secretary reminded us that the government had promised to do everything we could to cooperate. So I dutifully sat next to a lawyer while they combed through every word of my calendars – “what my kids were up, what my mum was up to” – and decided what was relevant to the investigation. At that level of government, you just have to accept that when events come under the microscope, “every single thing you say and do, potentially, is of relevance”.