The arrest and questioning of the Conservative Home Affairs Spokesman Damien Green raises some timely questions about sources, freedom of information and political dirty tricks. Civil liberties groups are screaming blue murder over the incident; the police entered Westminster, searched and confiscated material from an MP and threw the book at a politician for what seems to be him doing his job. However, it’s now apparent that Green was benefiting from leaks from a Civil Servant who was formerly a member of the Conservatives, applied for a job in the Opposition Home Affairs team and may have been ‘run’ as a political agent feeding confidential information to the Tory Front Bench.
Labour has been accused of ‘Stalinism’ and ‘Watergate’ style behaviour over this. On the first charge, the government have said they had no prior knowledge of the independent police investigation until Green was arrested; this will have to remain unproven until evidence is found to the contrary. On the second charge if Green turns out to have planted an agent within the Civil Service to undermine the government, then it’s the Conservatives who are manifesting Nixonian subterfuge. There are no ‘plumbers’ at work being directed from Downing Street.
The information the source leaked did not threaten state security nor was it pointing towards corruption; it was however politically embarrassing (details of inaccurate immigration figures) – leaks always occur when controversial policy documents are circulated. Should we even be the slightest bit concerned about the motivation of the leaker?
Without Mark Felt, aka ‘Deepthroat’, Watergate would not have developed into the story it became. Having a source so senior in the FBI was a huge gift to Bob Woodward; Felt gave Woodward incredibly sensitive background information about the Nixon White House – ‘Deepthroat’ at one stage saw all Hoover’s briefing material at the FBIl. Felt had conflicting motivations for helping the Washington Post bring down a President; patriotism, career ambition, jealousy, and power playing. He was a complicated figure; we will never now what his over-riding motivation for being Woodward’s source was.
If ‘Deepthroat’, the confidential source with the highest profile, had such mixed motives for being an information-conduit, we can appreciate more easily that less significant whistle-blowers are human beings with their flaws and imperfections. They are not the heroic figures Hollywood and we want them to be. Sources leak for their own personal reasons; these may be noble or ignoble.
It should be up to the source themselves, especially when a public official, whether to reveal information if it a) exposes unethical or illegal behaviour and/or is b) in the public interest. It is entirely different for a political party to seek to encourage and run a politically motivated plant within a government department or induce that individual to impart information.
This is where Green and the Conservatives may fall foul of the law. They did not capitalise on the good intentions of a high-minded public official; they are being accused of essentially running a spy (complete with his own controller) in the heart of government. This undermines rather than strengthens democracy and makes life more difficult for genuine whistle-blowers who are struggling with their conscience when they uncover political wrongdoing. Clive Ponting was right to say that the Belgrano was outside the 200-mile exclusion zone surrounding the Falklands Islands, Daniel Ellsberg was justified in releasing the Pentagon Papers – these were important, moral issues. A partisan political hack infiltrating a government department is little different in substance to taking secret photographs and rifling through filing cabinets; it’s the unethical gathering of political intelligence, burglary-lite, dirty tricks at their most invidious.
Whoever can spin this episode to their advantage over the coming days will have pulled off a serious coup in the propaganda stakes. Labour knows that this has the potential to derail their comeback; the Conservatives are determined to turn this into a process story rather than an issues one. And the Tories are winning the air war on this one by miles so far. The ideal solution for Labour is no charges and the Conservatives being made to look duplicitous. Christopher Galley, the mole in question, has already lawyered up and given a press conference claiming a public interest defence. The strange case of the Tory mole continues…