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Leaking from the top

As Sir Humphrey Appleby commented drily to ‘his’ Minister in the brilliant BBC TV series, “the ship of State is the only one that leaks from the top”. In the more recent series ‘The Thick of it’, as the Government suffers meltdown because of a leak, it is contended that all the people guilty of a leak could fill the Caspian Sea.

And this phenomenon in politics is as true now as ever.

The leak by Leo Varadkar to a contact in the medical world, whichever way it is dressed up, was just that - a leak. It was a confidential document and members of the Cabinet were entitled to believe that it would remain so until the Cabinet decided otherwise. What is different about this leak, among many dozens of leaks, is that the leaking of the leak was leaked! A reverse leak you might say.

His presentation to the Dail demonstrated contrition. But there is a difference between an explanation and an excuse and while he apologised for the controversy, he should have apologised for doing the wrong thing. It is good that a full investigation is taking place and it is to be hoped that we are not confronted with further revelations.

In fairness to him, this wasn’t the massive information dump of the Panama Papers or Watergate variety and there are more pressing matters that should have the undivided attention of the political system. In my opinion, it was not a resigning matter and the Taoiseach was right to move on.

In the EU, the situation is more complex. Because all major initiatives require the support of all Member-States, everything has to be widely shared and there is wide consultation. Or to put it another way, the chances of something leaking are 27 times more likely in the EU than in Ireland.

Hunting for leakers is considered a futile exercise especially given that selective disclosure of information (leaks) is vitally important in controlling the agenda from time to time. Last year the President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen let it be known that investigations were ongoing into leaks but it all petered out. This has been the pattern for years.

Many senior politicians will find this heretical but I have never leaked a document to a journalist in my life. I spent three years in Cabinet when many incredibly sensitive documents came into my possession but I respected the integrity of the process I was privileged to be involved in.

On the other hand, I was the victim of an inveterate leaker when I was in GOAL and struggling to get on top of a fraud investigation in 2016. I still don’t know who was responsible - not for certain anyway. The overall effect of the leaking was to undermine confidence in my leadership of the organisation which may or may not have been the motivation.

Qui bono - who benefits. This question usually leads to a fairly short list of candidates.

By the way, kite-flying, though related, is not to be confused with leaking. This is another way to test the possible public reaction to a policy proposal without having to own it.

So while all kites are leaks, not all leaks are kites!

Also whistleblowing is not leaking. Whistleblowing is protected in law and in most employment contracts. The disclosure of information about certain categories of wrongdoing is protected and cannot result in victimisation of the whistleblower.

Vincent Browne tweeted that he had received a leaked document from a Minister under strictest confidence - Vincent says that the Minister then launched an investigation into the leak.

Another critical skill for leakers is ‘plausible deniability’. This is when the leaker inserts a detail into the leaked information that is incorrect and that distances him or her from the information. So (let’s say) the Minister for Finance leaks that there will be an increase in the Old age pension in the budget. But he leaks the wrong figure so that no one suspects he did it. The journalist (the leakee) gets it right that there is going to be an increase and gets to speculate on how much it might be.

And then the Minister launches an investigation into the leak....

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