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Sensemaker: Secret emails

Tuesday 29 June 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Ethiopia declared a unilateral ceasefire in Tigray after rebel troops retook the regional capital, Mekele.
  • Paintings by Picasso and Mondrian were recovered by police from a gorge outside Athens, nine years after they were stolen from Greece’s National Art Gallery.
  • England prepared to meet Germany in the Euros after Switzerland knocked out France, the favourites, on penalties.

Secret emails

The UK government is under pressure at the moment over one of its normal practices: officials and ministers routinely use private communications channels – private email, WhatsApp messages – to do government work. Matt Hancock, the departed health secretary, and Lord Bethell, a still-serving junior minister, both used unofficial email accounts for work. A third health minister, Helen Whately, has now been caught too. Labour is calling for an investigation. 

This was, you might recall, a major issue back in 2016 for Hillary Clinton: the use of a private set of accounts from during her time as secretary of state dogged her presidential campaign. It is a problem for modern government. And it is banal, but extremely important:

  • Keeping public information off public systems means that important data may be missed when Freedom of Information requests are made – or when courts require disclosures. 
  • What if private health information were disclosed to an official and they then leave their job? And are these private accounts secure from Russian hackers, say?
  • Allowing communications on official business in a way that allows the corrupt or incompetent to hide and destroy traces of discussions is a bad idea. 
  • We are supposed to keep good records of decisions for the benefit of historians, but also so that people can understand the rationale and purpose of policy decisions. 

(I should declare an interest: the guidance in force now is all a result of reporting I did at the FT (£) a decade ago on this behaviour at the Department for Education: Michael Gove, then the secretary of state, was using his wife’s email for government business, then denying the emails existed.)

As a general rule, the bits of government that are bad on transparency are weak on things like private email use. And the bits of government that are bad on transparency are bad at everything. The Cabinet Office, the most rotten, dysfunctional and dishonest pillar of the British state, is also its most secretive – and a part of government where private systems are prevalent.

The law, in truth, is clever: it cares about whether information ought to be public, and does not care about the medium. If the PM uses an official email address to arrange dinner with his wife, that is not accessible under the Freedom of Information Act. If he uses WhatsApp to talk about procurement, then it is. Likewise: courts do not care about the letterhead on the email. 

The core problem we have is that if public officials use private accounts, we have to trust them to disclose from those accounts in response to search requests. And if they are the prime minister, say, officials might think getting them to hand over their phone, or engage with an FOIA request themselves, is a bit much. So things will go unseen and unfound. Given the cronyism questions that beset this government, this is serious.

But there’s a simpler issue too. The rules say they shouldn’t do it. Under the law (section 46 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 for example), they are required to keep proper records. That should be enough.

Adieu. This will be my last Sensemaker: many thanks to many readers who got in touch over the past few years with their kind thoughts and corrections. I’m a co-author on a piece coming out this Thursday in our file and, tonight, I am chairing a ThinkIn on saving the high street. Please, join me.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

A descent
Don’t wait for the results: the Batley and Spen by-election on Thursday is already a disaster. The constituency was the site of Britain’s last political murder: Jo Cox was killed by a member of the far-right in 2016. Her sister, a local, is now running to hold the seat for Labour. But the campaign has been horrific. There has been intimidation. White voters have been targeted with fake Labour leaflets claiming that Labour thinks “it is high time that white people acknowledged their privilege”. Meanwhile, people sympathetic to the campaign of George Galloway have been stoking grievance about the Labour candidate’s support for LGBT rights. Labour itself has come under fire for a leaflet highlighting the two parties’ position on Kashmir, featuring a large picture of Boris Johnson meeting Narendra Modi. The chancers will move on after the vote. But they will leave a town with heightened local tensions and wrecked local politics. 


New things technology, science, engineering

Antitrust
Facebook has seen off two antitrust cases in court – one brought by the federal government, and one by a coalition of states. According to the FT (£), Judge James Boasberg in Washington said the federal lawsuit was “legally insufficient” and the federal agency had “failed to plead enough facts to plausibly establish” that Facebook had monopoly power over the social networking market. The agency will have a month to refile its suit. The other suit, brought by 46 states and two jurisdictions, was dismissed because the allegations were too old. This is unlikely to be more than a respite, though. “Facebook’s power is obvious, and yet we have a judge here getting into arcane details of what makes up the market,” said Bill Kovacic, a former Federal Trade Commission chair. “It will be held up as the precise example of why we need to change the law.”


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

R budgets
The Telegraph has launched a campaign to change the rules on English schools’ approach to Covid: their splash is a big graph showing 9,000 positive cases in schools has led to 172,000 children being sent home. They think this is a bit much. The Guardian and BBC are reporting that this is a campaign that has already been won: rules will likely be changed next term – with less automatic isolation for pupils in classes where someone gets sick and more rapid testing. This will be one of many judgments we make in coming months that will be reliant on how much we care about a disease spreading if few people are dying. For now, schools are scrambling to hold things together ahead of the forthcoming holidays. Some schools have introduced their own “circuit breakers”: closing the schools to try to stop recurrent waves of infection to allow internal exams to take place before the end of term. 


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Game numbers
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Nairobi that all the world should be registered. A census is taking place in the national parks of Kenya. According to the Guardian, it will cost 250 million Kenyan shillings (£1.6 million) and includes “a count of terrestrial and marine mammals, key birds such as ostriches and kori bustards, and endangered primates”. Results are expected in August. The issue that the census is facing is that while headcounts of glamour animals, like elephants, are closely monitored, it is possible that some of the country’s less remarked-upon natural patrimony might be in worse shape than we know. Who is looking for rare antelope species, like the sable, sitatunga, hirola and mountain bongo? The Guardian cites a conservationist who says the humble wildebeest is down by 90 per cent in some reserves. Fingers crossed.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Gadget tax
A group of British celebrities has called for a tax on devices that can play audio and video. Olivia Colman (Oscar-winning actor) and John Nettles (that bloke off Bergerac) are among dozens of high-profile artists calling for a portion of gadget sales revenue in the UK to go into a fund for performers and creators. In a letter to the Times, they propose a modest tax that could raise £300 million a year for the arts. There is a problem with this – other than that it won’t happen. Which is that even if they persuade the Treasury that there’s money in taxing something in a way that no one will notice, there’s no way it would ever give the cash to a bunch of artists.

Stay safe, wash your hands, open windows when you can.

Chris Cook
@xtophercook

Photographs George Cracknell Wright/LNP/Shutterstock, Getty Images


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