Isabel Oakeshott and the ethics of her ‘massive betrayal’

At face value Isabel Oakeshott’s actions would seem to confirm the popular misconception that journalists cannot be trusted.

She was given access to former Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s Whatsapp conversations to help her ghostwrite his book, The Pandemic Diaries, which was released in December.

Hancock was effectively her source for the book which she wrote on his behalf, and now she has burned him by giving 100,000 Whatsapp messages he shared with her to the Telegraph for its Lockdown Files investigation.

The story is also a clear breach of privacy. Private correspondence is protected under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act. Furthermore, Oakeshott is believed to have had a confidentiality clause written into her contract with Hancock.

So has the freelance journalist breached journalism’s ethical and moral code with her leak to the Telegraph? (She says she was not paid by the Telegraph for the data but presumably has been paid for her work on the story).

At a personal level, many journalists would not do what she has done for reasons of sheer professional survival. How would sources trust them in future? And how would they get future ghostwriting work?

But in these particular circumstances it is difficult not to see how, ethically speaking, she is anything but a whistleblower who has acted in the public interest.

She was working with Hancock on a project and felt that vast swathes of public interest information had been kept back from the historical record.

As she put it herself yesterday on Twitter, children paid a “terrible price” in the pandemic and the economy was left “in smithereens”. These two outcomes were possibly avoidable and a consequence of political decisions which the Lockdown Files shed a fascinating light on.

Oakeshott said: “The outpouring of support I and the paper have had from ordinary people who suffered – and are still suffering – the consequences of the mistakes we are exposing shows how desperately the nation wants answers. I make no apology whatsoever for acting in the national interest: The worst betrayal of all would be to cover up these truths.”

Most whistleblowers are employees and so break a duty of confidence. But they do so because their conscience tells them that others deserve to know what they know. So Matt Hancock’s description of her actions as a “massive betrayal” feels like a personal attack which rather misses the wider context.

She told Press Gazette that she accepts her reputation “may take a hit”. But how much worse for her reputation if it came out at a later date that she was complicit in a cover-up?

Oakeshott and the Telegraph could yet face legal action for breach of privacy. There is a public interest in politicians being able to have private discussions with each other and it would be for a court to decide whether public interest in disclosure outweighs that.

But my hunch is this matter never gets to court. Hancock is the most likely litigant and he would have to first explain why he breached the confidence of colleagues by sharing his communications with a journalist. It would also be difficult to argue that he has been personally damaged by the revelation of his true opinions about matters of public policy.

If the Telegraph starts revealing more scurrilous personal messages then that might be a different matter.

Oakeshott could also face legal action for breach of her contract with Hancock but that also seems extremely unlikely. Hancock would come across as vindictive and who knows what other unflattering truths might come to light in the course of such a court case?

Oakeshott told Press Gazette: “This isn’t about Matt Hancock and it isn’t about me. My responsibility was not to protect the reputation of one self-interested politician but to serve the overwhelming public interest.

“If my reputation also takes a hit in the process of exposing hard truths about policies that affected us all that’s a price I’m willing to pay. The messages of support from the public are extraordinary.”

Good journalism is often about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, and that is what Oakeshott has done.

Oakeshott and the Telegraph deserve praise for facing down considerable legal risks in order to shed fascinating light on one of the most important chapters in recent British history.

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