How media leaks can sometimes happen

As if Brexit was not causing enough problems for embattled British prime minister Theresa May, there is a new row from a totally different direction because she has sacked her defense minister Gavin Williamson for being the source of leaks from a meeting of the highly secretive National Security Council. While leaks from cabinet meetings have now become commonplace as party discipline has broken down, leaks from the NSC are considered a step too far. Williamson in turn denies that he was the source of the leaks and says that he was the victim of a biased investigation. This has caused turmoil in the Conservative party between his and her backers.

Some reporters have chimed in to discuss the whole process of leaks. They say it is rare that there is a direct leak from an insider to a reporter where both are explicitly aware that confidential information is being shared. The whole process is usually much more subtle involving nods and winks and codes, with what is not said playing as much an important role as what is said. Tom Newton Dunn, political editor of the Sun newspaper, describes to Nick Robinson what usually happens.

Robinson suggested that, to get a story like this, a journalist would not have to be told directly and outright by a minister what happened. They might instead by able to infer it from the minister not disagreeing with a proposition put to him, or her. Newton Dunn agreed. And he went on:

“I’m sure that’s how it would have happened, whoever the leaker was, if it was Gavin Williamson, who we’ve all suspected it was in Westminster. We’ve done this for a while. That’s exactly how the conversations go. You don’t ring up a minister and say, ‘Will you leak this to me?’ You say to him, “If I were to write, and I think that this happened, would I look particularly silly?” And then the minister says to you, “I don’t think you look silly, Tom, at the best of times”. And that’s the code we talk in. Or sometimes they say, “You do look particularly silly much of the time”. That’s the code. And that’s how it would have happened.”

In a Twitter stream, Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff describes her experience with getting leaks from politicians, that it is like building a jigsaw puzzle from bits and pieces obtained from various sources and sometimes the person who provides the final confirming piece may not be aware that they played that vital role: “I’ve had people say to me “I don’t know how you got hold of X” & I think ‘uh literally from you mate’. Sometimes if you know a person well it’s about the face they pull when you ask them did X happen, or the answer they don’t give.”

If you are in a position where you have secrets that you do not want to reveal, talking to reporters is a risky business.


  1. Jenora Feuer says

    Sometimes the people who think they’re being clever are the ones who give the most away without realizing it.

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