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United Kingdom’s Ambassador to the United States: Leaked Messages - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:40 pm on 25th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 1:40 pm, 25th July 2019

My Lords, it is obvious that the leaks were contemptible and that they were intended to corrupt the process of deliberation within the British Embassy in the United States by giving the impression that the embassy is leaking and therefore cannot be trusted. If one looks at the leaks, it is striking that there is nothing worrying there. No state secrets have been leaked; all that has been leaked is somebody’s view of somebody else. The view leaked is that the ambassador thinks that the American President, or his Administration, is dysfunctional, and asks the British Prime Minister to be careful. I am sure that the American President does not need our ambassador to tell him that—he is smart enough to know what people think of him. What seems to have happened is that he took those charges seriously, not in order to answer them but to use them as a stick with which to beat the British people, and the British Prime Minister in particular, who had dared to question him on one or two occasions, and to make abusive remarks.

The first thing to bear in mind is that the whole thing has been blown out of proportion at one level, because the American President, who is thin-skinned and rather touchy, decided to take absolutely ordinary, normal remarks by a professional ambassador as an occasion for abuse. That is the first point I want to make: we should not get these leaks out of proportion. They are not leaks involving state secrets or anybody’s personal life.

My second point is that these leaks are not systematic, nor can they be compared to whistleblowing. Sometimes we have leaks which are intended in the public interest to disclose things that are going on. This is not a case of whistleblowing, because the leaks are the product of a systematic attempt over a period of time to gather together a particular kind of case against the British Government. Since this is the intention behind the leaks, a question arises. I do not want to question the freedom of the press but to look at the morality of it. Somebody leaks these things to a journalist. What is the responsibility of that journalist? If somebody sells or passes on to me stolen goods, what is my responsibility? Is it to say, “I didn’t know”, when of course I knew that they were stolen? Am I completely free to do what I like with them? This is what liberal society tends to think, but many of us who are critical of liberal society want to ask: what about the ethics of the individual recipient of these secrets? Could he or she not alert the Government or say that they will not accept them? Should the journalist be completely absolved of any responsibility for dealing with these leaks?

That second point is just as important. Leaks become public because a newspaper or a public medium takes them seriously and prints them. Does the newspaper editor have absolutely no responsibility? After the leaks have been published, they say that the leaks have damaged the country—but they did so because they were published. Should an editor not have asked themselves that question earlier? I hope that I am not talking as an enemy of liberal freedom; I am simply saying, let us introduce some sense of ethics and personal morality into public life, and ask ourselves what the obligations of a journalist are. If it is a case of whistleblowing, it is fair enough that things might have to be disclosed, but it must be justified. Can a journalist or newspaper justify publishing this in the public interest?