Nikileaks explained: The sad thing about the Nicola Sturgeon saga is that it makes leaks less likely

Leaking of information is a necessary part of an open society

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Occasionally, I have been on the receiving end of a leaked document. I was, if you like, a leakee. One leak was an absolute cracker: it was the only time I have been handed the near-mythological brown envelope in a  corridor somewhere and, after peeking inside, felt as if the contents were burning in my bag as I raced back to my desk. There was a huge public interest in the information getting out, and the source, whose name I will, of course, never reveal because without protection of sources journalism dies, was right to blow the whistle.

Leaking of information is a necessary part of an open society. Without it, we would only get the controlled, sanitised version of what the government or a political party wanted to tell us. And when people attack the “media” they seem to forget that without journalists there to dig, probe and be leaked to, we would just get Whitehall press releases telling us how marvellous some government initiative was going to be.

Let us, then, unpack the “nikileaks” story surrounding the memo written by a civil servant and leaked to The Daily Telegraph in the weeks before the election, in which Nicola Sturgeon was quoted as saying to a French diplomat that she would rather see David Cameron as prime minister than Ed Miliband. Until the First Minister categorically denied the words attributed to her, it was assumed by everyone involved – the journalists who received the leaked memo, the civil servant who wrote it, and the then Scotland Secretary Alistair Carmichael and his special adviser Euan Roddin who, we now know, were involved in its leaking – that Sturgeon had said this.

As the Cabinet Office leak inquiry found, the civil servant had “no history of inaccurate reporting, impropriety or security lapses” and Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood concludes “there is no reason to doubt that he recorded accurately what he thought he had heard”.

So for all Carmichael and his adviser knew, the memo was accurate and taking it in good faith provided an opportunity, in the public interest, to release dynamite information about a political opponent. For anyone to claim this sort of thing doesn’t go on all the time is bizarre, fairy tale stuff. It is politics. If Sturgeon wants to insist the memo didn’t reflect what she said to the French ambassador, fine. That is not an argument against leaking a memo that appeared, at the time, to be a true record.

Should Carmichael have lied in a TV interview in the days afterwards that the first he knew about the memo was when contacted by a journalist? Of course not. But Sturgeon says Carmichael should consider resigning as an MP not only because of this lie but also because of the leak, which she refers to as the “original dirty trick” as if it were a deliberate and inaccurate “black propaganda” smear. But if everyone at the time believed the memo to be an accurate account, and even Sturgeon herself has said the civil servant wrote the memo in “good faith”, how was it a “dirty trick”?

On Friday there were plenty of people on Twitter, not all of them SNP supporters, howling that Carmichael should quit because he leaked the memo. Some were even celebrating that the leak inquiry had identified the culprits – the first such Whitehall probe that anyone can remember doing so. I find it disturbing that the Cabinet Office went through mobile phone records and email logs of Scotland Office civil servants and advisers to find that Roddin had spoken to one of the Telegraph journalists who wrote the story (although had the adviser been better at his tradecraft, he would have used a private mobile).

This is a backdoor way of doing exactly what the police are accused of doing, which is going through journalists’ phone records to identify sources. Is it now time for political journalists to fear receiving a leak from Whitehall in case their phone records end up being part of a Cabinet Office probe?

Indeed, there is a free-speech chill in the air. Before the election, David Cameron said a change in the law was needed in response to Press Gazette’s Save Our Sources campaign to stop the police using anti-terror laws to go through phone records. Tory ministers in the coalition were enthusiasts alongside their Liberal Democrat counterparts for scrapping ID cards and the sinister national identity register. Yet the new Conservative government seems to have ditched any pretence at being liberal with a small l.

Cameron’s remarks earlier this month that it was no longer good enough to say to people “as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone” were a marked change of tone. His backing of Theresa May over the extension of a snooper’s charter into communications, rather than siding with the free speech-celebrating Business Secretary Sajid Javid, underlines his less-than-liberal instincts.

The sad thing about the heavy-handed inquiry into this saga is that it makes Whitehall leaks less likely, which in turn will leave the public more than ever in the dark.

In Hodge’s footsteps

This week, besides the Queen’s Speech, Parliament gets to see a lesser spectacle in the elections of select committee chairs.

One of the plummest positions is chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, previously held by Margaret Hodge, who is standing down. Her successor will also be a Labour MP because of the way the committees are carved up, and I’m hearing that the hot favourite – particularly among the more powerful electorate of Tory MPs – is Birmingham Edgbaston MP Gisela Stuart.

Stuart is a stern critic of the EU, but what makes her potential appointment more enticing is I have rarely met a more independent-minded MP in parliament.

Laid in Chelsea

At the Chelsea Flower Show last week I joined in that tradition of amateur head-scratching as to why some show gardens won gold and others, such as that by Matt Keightley for Prince Harry’s Sentebale charity, got the lower medal of silver gilt, even though it won the People’s Choice award. As I peered into one gold medal-winning garden I noticed gaps in the turf where some squares of lawn looked as if they’d been plonked together by a DIY dad on a bank holiday. Is this the new fashion?

Twitter: @janemerrick23