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October 13, 2021updated 07 Nov 2023 5:49am

‘Important win for journalism’ as The Citizens wins right to challenge ‘Government by Whatsapp’

By Charlotte Tobitt

A non-profit group has won permission to challenge “Government by Whatsapp” in the High Court in what has been seen as an “important win” for journalism.

The Citizens brought the case, with the help of tech advocacy group Foxglove Legal, after the UK Government refused to answer Freedom of Information requests about the use of Whatsapp messages.

Former Bureau of Investigative Journalism editor and Citizens member Iain Overton made multiple requests, all refused, to the Cabinet Office asking whether ministers and special advisers had used messaging apps Whatsapp and Signal, which is similar but more privacy-focused.

This week The Citizens was given permission to pursue the case to a full judicial review at the High Court.

The court heard allegations that the Cabinet secretly told ministers and officials to change their settings to delete messages at the end of every conversation.

It also heard that Number Ten had previously banned the use of personal phones, email or WhatsApp for any Government business.

The Citizens plans to argue that the use of disappearing message apps for government business violates the Public Records Act of 1958 which requires such communications to be kept in case they are needed in the public interest.

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Historian Richard Evans gave a supporting statement for the case arguing the records were vital for the public archive.

Clara Maguire, director of The Citizens, said it was a “good day for democracy” and an “important win for journalism” in the UK.

“We believe journalists and historians must have access to this information and we look forward to proving ‘Government by WhatsApp’ is not only dangerous but also unlawful,” she said.

The Cabinet Office would not comment on the specific legal case but a spokesperson said: “Ministers will use a range of modern forms of communication for discussions, in line with legislative requirements, and taking into account government guidance.”

Foxglove director Cori Crider said the case was the first of its kind to challenge the use of new technology to circumvent official record keeping and that it “raises a critical issue in modern government.

“We’re doing this to defend the integrity of our public debate. We can’t learn from history if the evidence has vanished into thin air.”

The Citizens was set up during the Covid-19 pandemic to use impact journalism to hold the Government and tech companies to account. It was co-founded by the Observer’s Facebook data scoop-getter Carole Cadwalladr and is advised by Maria Ressa, who last week won the Nobel Peace Prize for her journalism work.

The group has launched the Independent Sage group to interrogate the UK’s Covid-19 policies and the Real Facebook Oversight Board to hold the social media company to account for its role in spreading hate speech and misinformation.

The court win came on the same day that a report from the Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee into the Government’s Covid-19 response condemned a lack of transparency that “impeded effective public scrutiny at a crucial time in the pandemic”.

In July the Information Commissioner’s Office began investigating the use of private messaging services or email accounts by Department for Health and Social Care ministers and officials.

Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said although the use of these channels does not break Freedom of Information rules, the information could be “overlooked, autodeleted or otherwise not available” when a request is later made, frustrating the process.

Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings published Whatsapp messages demonstrating the Government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis in June, providing proof of officials using the service for Government business. The Daily Mail has reported on Johnson seemingly using Whatsapp to run the country while The Times revealed more than a third of his cabinet had downloaded Signal.

Picture: Nick Ansell/PA Wire

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