The importance of leaks
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke is definitely not old school. But make no mistake - his speech this week (PDF link) to the Policy Exchange think tank was a clip round the ear and a stentorian "now laddie, don't do it again" for the Whitehall news machine.
DAC Clarke's warning that a "small number of misguided individuals who betray confidences" by leaking details of anti-terror operations was stated in terms as cool and calm as they were serious. The leaks were compromising investigations, he said, revealing sources of life-saving intelligence and putting lives at risk.
He didn't exactly lay a hand on a pin-striped shoulder with a cheery "you're nicked." But his carefully measured speculation that the villains were looking "to squeeze out some short term presentational advantage" from the leaks left no-one in doubt who he meant.
Certainly Conservative leader David Cameron was in no doubt. He extracted from the prime minister at PMQs the condemnation of “leaks of sensitive information from whatever quarter” and the non-denial denial that “as far as he (the prime minister) was aware” the leaks did not come from civil servants or ministers.
Leaks - private briefings - are a basic tool of the journalist. They satisfy one of the first conditions of news; revealing something significant that those outside a small circle of privileged people don't know.
They can be irritating and embarrassing for those in positions of power, authority and influence... and that’s sort of the point. Without leaks and whistleblowers a long list of abuses of power would have remained unknown. Even small leaks are a constant reminder to those we allow to govern us that we want to know what they’re really doing in our name... not just what they choose to tell us.
But there are leaks and there are leaks. In the ‘traditional’ model of journalism, a leak is associated with some sort of journalistic enterprise. The good contact; the spade work to find the right person... and then asking the right question; winning the trust of the whistleblower; reporting the leak faithfully, honestly and fairly.
But that model's been turned on its head by a different kind of leak, one that's entirely unburdened by journalistic enterprise. One that has become very much more common since the mid 1990s. The staged, selective leak not from a whistleblower but from someone who legitimately holds the information and whose purpose it is in leaking to massage and manipulate a “short-term presentational advantage,” to quote DAC Clarke once again.
DAC Clarke had in mind the investigation in Birmingham into an allegation that a British serviceman had been targeted by a terrorist network. This leak was of the second and not the first type.
“Almost before the detainees had arrived at the police stations to which they were being taken for questioning, it was clear that key details of the investigation and the evidence had been leaked,” DAC Clarke said.
Now, no journalist has ever turned his or her back on a piece of information presented as a leak... especially if, as in this case, the leak is a shower and all the competition has it too.
But since the mid 1990s, the currency of the leak - particularly in the political context - has been devalued.
Journalists still exist who by their own hard work spanner out the facts citizens need in order to know what’s being done to us in our name. But two other kinds of journalist have come into being in the last decade and a half; the first who - bluntly - just makes it up under the protection of 'sources'. The second who waits patiently in line for today's or this week's handout from authority, knowing that a story that is in fact from official sources but which is misleadingly buffed to possess the patina of a 'leak' automatically attracts a validation denied the official version. Even if the story is the same.
DAC Clarke's anger - and that of the journalists trying to cover the Birmingham raids on the ground who felt undermined - was aimed at those who leaked/briefed London based journalists. There was more than a measure of disappointment, too, at the journalists who lapped it up.
There will be no inquiry nor is the oath of omerta that binds journalist to source, even in this distorted version of a 'leak', likely to be breached. But the test journalists always employ after a leak is captured in the Latin phrase 'cui bono'. Loosely - 'who benefits'.
Everyone will come to their own conclusion on that - DAC Clarke evidently has. But it's worth spending a moment pondering also whether journalism has benefited or lost.