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February 1, 2024

C4 News’ Ciaran Jenkins wanted to set ‘benchmark’ for openness with Sturgeon Whatsapp question

Sturgeon admitted this week she deleted Covid-era Whatsapps, despite telling Jenkins she would not.

By Bron Maher

Channel 4 News correspondent and presenter Ciaran Jenkins has said he wanted to secure a “benchmark” for government transparency when he asked Nicola Sturgeon if she would provide her Whatsapp messages to any future Covid inquiry.

Jenkins asked Sturgeon, then Scottish First Minister, at a press conference in August 2021 whether she would guarantee bereaved families “that you will disclose emails, Whatsapps [and] private emails” to the then-promised inquiry into the handling of the pandemic.

Sturgeon said she would – but this week told the UK Covid inquiry that she had in fact already deleted Whatsapp messages at that point.

‘Nicola Sturgeon is being measured against a benchmark that she herself set’

Jenkins told Press Gazette on Wednesday his question “set a benchmark about the level of disclosure that the public and specifically the bereaved families expected”.

At the time, Jenkins was Scotland correspondent for Channel 4 News. Much of his reporting from the height of the pandemic, he said, had been focused on those who had died of Covid, their families and the key policy decisions that influenced the progress of the virus in Scotland.

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“As a journalist who had for several years tried to extract information from various public authorities, I felt that for the public inquiry to do justice to those families, that they would require a certain level of disclosure,” he said.

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“It felt important to place on the record that, when the time came, when the pandemic was over, that they would get all the answers they deserved.”

Jenkins said the important point about his question was that it asked Sturgeon to set herself a standard to meet.

“Nicola Sturgeon is being measured against a benchmark that she herself set in answer to my question during the pandemic, which was to give bereaved families the assurance that nothing would be off limits. And the question today is whether nothing was indeed off limits.”

The specific question Jenkins asked was: “Can you guarantee to the bereaved families that you will disclose emails, WhatsApps, private emails if you’ve been using them, whatever – that nothing will be off limits in this inquiry?”

Sturgeon responded: “If you understand statutory public inquiries you would know that even if I wasn’t prepared to give that assurance – which for the avoidance of doubt I am – then I wouldn’t have the ability [to not hand them over]. This will be a judge-led statutory inquiry.”

Sturgeon admitted on Wednesday to having deleted the messages, but said no decisions of consequence to the Scottish government’s pandemic response were made on Whatsapp and that all relevant communications were handed to the inquiry. She nonetheless apologised for the deletions.

Value of asking Sturgeon about Whatsapps in advance ‘speaks for itself’

Jenkins said he thought the deletion of Sturgeon’s Whatsapp messages would have come to light regardless of whether he had asked about it. But the value of asking about them, he said, “speaks for itself”.

“The Scottish bereaved families group said they were deeply unsatisfied with her answers today in respect of disclosure of their Whatsapps. If there’d been the disclosures that they wanted, then this question [to Sturgeon] would have been forgotten – it would never come to light and it would never have recirculated on social media.

“It’s only the fact that clearly, some have judged that there was a case to be answered, that the question has become significant in retrospect.”

But Jenkins did note that Sturgeon had not hidden from scrutiny: “She did repeated press conferences and media appearances and she would take any question from any journalist present in those press conferences.

“And so, in a way, the fact that I was able to ask that question is testament to one aspect of the process working – in that during this period of huge consequences for us all, the First Minister was willing to be held to account by by the media, irrespective of the consequences of her answers at the time.”

Asked at the Covid inquiry this week about the apparent contradiction between what she told Jenkins and what she actually did, Sturgeon had said she had been attempting to address the substance of his question.

Jenkins wouldn’t be drawn on whether that question satisfied him personally. But he said: “I think the question probably is whether Nicola Sturgeon feels that she has acted in accordance with her own assurances at the time. And by giving an apology, perhaps that tells you what you need to know.”

[From March 2023: Channel 4 News journalist Ciaran Jenkins to lead new data and digital Fact Check unit in Leeds]

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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