David Cameron aimed a broadside at the Ministry of Defence today (and by proxy at Liam Fox).
“That department does seem to have had a bit of problem for leaks which is worrying when that department is responsible for security.”
On one level this is fair enough. Leaks are extremely unsettling for ministers and senior officials.
But at the MoD, the problem hasn’t been leaks. It has been a willingness to cover up uncomfortable truths. How else did it end up with a black hole of £36bn? Some more transparency — whether authorised or not — would only have been beneficial.
The coalition certainly believes this in principle. But when transparency makes life difficult for them rather than Labour, they struggle.
Take James Kirkup’s excellent scoop today. Fox’s reaction was to say that it was written by a “junior official” and that it had not “been authorised, requested or seen by an MoD minister”.
Which begs the question, why not? Why didn’t ministers see this well argued, plainly written and insightful critique of the most important defence review since the Cold War? Fox should be holding it up as an example of the independent thinking that goes on at the MoD, not mocking it for being a the musings of a “junior official”.
Other departments are also suffering from paranoia. The grip over information at the Education department is ever tighter since the election. But it has not stopped leaks. What has been damaged is not the quality of our stories, but the quality of policymaking.
Senior directors are being deluged with work that they are no longer permitted to delegate. Secrecy is at such a premium that they’re often working without the ability to consult experts, inside and outside of the department. It is the price of worrying too much about the press.
It is of course a difficult thing to adjust to working in Whitehall. But overreacting to leaks will merely stop officials ever putting anything controversial to paper. Do they really want anodyne advice? Ministers need to lighten up. Leaks happen sometimes. Transparency need to be for life, not just for opposition.