The hack, the money, the taxman and his lover

Operation Elveden, the investigation into payments to corrupt officials, appears to have claimed another scalp. In case you missed the story, and you might well have done, because in isolation it’s not a big story and it’s not enormously important and, frankly, it’s not that interesting, it (allegedly) goes something like this: Sun journalist offers money to tax official (an HMRC press officer) for information; official provides advance notice of the contents of upcoming Budget and deficit reduction plan; money gets routed through official’s partner, in a twist that adds little to the story but enables me to add the all-important “and his lover” at the end of the title.

So what? News International hacks sometimes bribe people. Public officials can be corrupt. Where’s the story?

It’s just this, really. Advance news about the Budget gets leaked all the time. Sometimes the leaks are done with the connivance of the government, to see how the public react and then shelve the whole thing if that reaction is a giant raspberry. I’ve written about that, and about the scary places it might lead us, here. Sometimes, the leaks are made by discontented civil servants who are upset about (for instance) plans that might affect their own departments, that might see them lose their jobs; sometimes they just don’t like the party in power, they prefer the one that didn’t get in, and they leak a bit of Budget news to their political friends in the hope that they can make a little capital out of it.

All of these leaks are roundly condemned by Government – even the ones they’ve sponsored. Sometimes, very rarely, the leaks are investigated and the source is found. In exceptional circumstances, the source is disciplined. But I’m not sure there’s ever been a case where someone’s been arrested for leaking about an upcoming Budget.

So, you’ll say, that’s different. This is a clear case of corruption. Money changed hands.

I’m not so sure. I’m all for whistle-blowing; I’ve written about that too, here and here. And if you’ve spotted some secret plot or nefarious deed that will never come to light without your spilling it, then fine, go ahead and spill. But if you’re just leaking something that’s about to be public anyway, and you’re doing it to save your job, maybe, or to benefit the party you happen to like, the political ideology you agree with, how’s that not corrupt? How’s that different from doing it for money, really? If you’re going to encourage whistle-blowers on the one hand, and criminalise those who leak for personal gain on the other, you have to be careful where you draw the line, and what you define as personal gain. To my mind, allowing one politician you happen to like to score a point over one you don’t, that’s personal gain.

And maybe you could take that even further. The Sun journalist’s a pretty clear-cut case, isn’t he? Suborning the crime, inciting it, offering money for it – and yes, I’m aware that it’s the money that makes it a crime in the first place, but that’s a legal nicety that takes us away from the real problem, the (to use a legal term) mischief the law is seeking to address. Is the politician who says he’ll “look out for” a leaking civil servant if and when he has the opportunity to, is he not inciting the (not) crime as well? If you’re going to criminalise those who offer personal gain for information, again, you’re going to have to investigate thoroughly the entire culture of leaking in Westminster.

And my guess is what you’ll find will make The Thick of It look like a teddy bears’ picnic.

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If you liked this, take a look at some extracts from my soon-to-be-published novel Without Due Care here.

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