Euan McColm: Political leaks in public’s interest

I PULLED into a car park on the outskirts of Catterick in North Yorkshire in my battered red Ford Fiesta and, as instructed, waited for the signal.

Alistair Carmichael MP. Picture: Greg Macvean

There were half a dozen other cars there but, as far as I could see, there was nobody inside any of them. Whoever had summoned me to this place was nowhere to be seen. I opened the window, just a crack, and lit a cigarette.

Twenty minutes passed, during which time I became convinced I’d been the victim of a prank, and then a silver Mercedes trundled in and stopped, facing my car. The driver flashed the headlights twice and I reciprocated.

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The driver got out and walked towards me. He had on a long coat with the collar turned up. He was carrying a brown A4 envelope.

When he got to my car, he slipped the envelope through the window, then turned and walked away. I waited until he’d driven off before examining the documents he’d passed me.

This was good stuff. A soldier had recently pleaded guilty to murder. He’d shot an innocent man with a powerful rifle that he’d taken from the local garrison and the fact he’d admitted his crime meant much of the detail had not been made public.

But here was the real story; a scandal about which the public had a right to know. The murderous squaddie had developed a drinking problem which exacerbated his already violently unpredictable personality. He was a man ready to lose control at any moment.

His superior officers had made the foolish, and tragic, decision to remove him from the day-to-day duties he’d been performing alongside others and put him in charge of the armoury. When his anger turned to thoughts of revenge against a local man he believed had wronged him, he was able to take an assault rifle from his place of work and walk out.

That I was able to make this public was thanks to another soldier, stationed in Catterick, who believed that the decision of senior officers to put the killer in charge of weapons was the stuff of scandal.

Leaks are not always so dramatic, either in content or in the way they are delivered, but they are often a crucial part of the process of finding out the truth.

In politics, leaks can tell us truths that we have a right to know or they can tell us gossip that pleases us.

I am, as a rule, in favour of leaks.

So I’m troubled by forthcoming proceedings at the Court of Session in Edinburgh which concern the decision of former secretary of state for Scotland, Alistair Carmichael, to sanction – during the recent general election campaign – the leak of a memo which alleged that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had disclosed during a meeting with the French ambassador that she favoured a Conservative Party victory.

You will know that the memo – a genuine document containing allegations which are furiously denied by Sturgeon – found its way into the hands of a newspaper reporter and the subsequent story caused outrage.

Initially, Liberal Democrat MP Carmichael denied all knowledge of the leak. Subsequently, he admitted that, yes, he had given a special adviser the nod to pass it on to a hack.

Four of Carmichael’s constituents in Orkney and Shetland have petitioned the Court of Session, seeking to overturn his election and, on 7 and 8 September, Lady Paton and Lord Eassie will decide whether the case has merit. That a crowd-funding campaign to support this move raised more than £60,000 stands testament to the strength of feeling of some – especially nationalists, I’d venture – about Carmichael’s actions.

Judges will decide whether he has a case to answer but, meanwhile, let’s consider the implications of a politician being punished for leaking.

Over the years, members of all the main political parties – including the SNP – have passed to me documents that they were supposed to keep private.

I’ve seen internal memos marked “strictly confidential” and accounts that were meant only for the eyes of chief executives. I’ve flicked through papers that gave excruciating details of disciplinary proceedings and dawdled over complaints from colleagues which threatened to end careers.

I’m hardy unique in this regard. All of us who make it our business to write about politics depend on the breaches of confidence by our contacts. A world in which we were informed only by what parties wanted us to know would be a strange and sterile one, indeed.

The danger of the Carmichael case is that it may discourage others from leaking information that they believe to be in the public interest. Leaks are not all about prurience: they are often the only way in which the truth can be uncovered.

If a leak contains information that is untrue – as is the allegation surrounding the document that Carmichael ordered should be handed to the Daily Telegraph – then it may reasonably be considered a smear (though we should have to be sure that the leaker knew the contents of the document passed on were false before reaching this conclusion) but, otherwise, leaks are completely necessary and those who carry them out may be doing us all a great service.

But, just as importantly, leakers add a little excitement and drama to the business of politics. The exposure of facts in the public interest is certainly justification for the art of the leak, but who could fail to be intrigued by the fall-out of sudden disclosure of that which was meant to be secret?

A leak may begin the end of a career – see, for example, the case of former Scottish Socialist Party leader Tommy Sheridan, who had admitted to colleagues that he planned to sue the now defunct News of the World over swinging allegations which were in fact true – or it may make a puffed-up politico squirm in a way that’s entirely pleasing to observe.

Carmichael’s political future will be decided by two judges in a couple of months’ time. I hope that, whatever their conclusion, leakers keep doing what they do. If anyone has a memo that a party leader wants kept secret, you know where I am.