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News UK, Mail, Mirror and Guardian execs reveal whether they would have published Hancock Whatsapps

Some of the news bosses had "qualms" about how The Telegraph had used the Whatsapp messages.

By Bron Maher

Bosses at Sun and Times publisher News UK, Mail publisher DMG Media, the Mirror and The Guardian have indicated they would have published, or seriously considered publishing, Matt Hancock’s Whatsapp messages.

Representatives of the four publishers were appearing in Parliament on Tuesday at a hearing about misinformation and trusted voices.

The Telegraph has for the past week been publishing stories based on former Health Secretary Hancock’s Whatsapp logs, which were controversially provided to the newspaper by journalist Isabel Oakeshott.

Oakeshott had obtained the Whatsapp messages under a confidentiality agreement in her capacity as ghostwriter for Hancock’s memoir, The Pandemic Diaries.

Asked by Labour MP Kevin Brennan whether he would have published Hancock’s messages, News UK chief operating officer David Dinsmore initially said: “You’d need to ask the editors.”

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Dinsmore, who was editor of The Sun between 2013 and 2015, was pushed on what he would have done if he had been a national newspaper editor at the time. He said: “It’s very difficult not to give great consideration to a story of such merit.”

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Oakeshott’s decision to hand over Hancock’s messages attracted criticism from some journalists, who accused her of turning on a source. Oakeshott has maintained the move served the public interest and prevented a “whitewash” Covid-19 inquiry.

Asked the same question Nick Hopkins, head of news at The Guardian, told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation: “I think we would have considered it.

“We’d have looked at the material on its merits. I think we would have probably, if we were going to publish it, done it in a slightly different way.”

Daily Mirror editor Alison Phillips, gave a more decisive answer, saying: “I mean, The Telegraph and Isabel Oakeshott do have an anti-lockdown agenda. We didn’t – we were on the side of caution in terms of lockdowns.

“However, I do think those Whatsapp messages are in the public interest, and we would have used them.”

DMG Media editor emeritus Peter Wright agreed: “I agree with Alison, I think they were very much in the public interest. We don’t really know the exact nature of this nondisclosure agreement [binding Oakeshott], which you would have wanted to see.

“But I’m afraid it gives a unique insight into the way government works and how the government handled the pandemic.

“I wouldn’t like to be in the position of having turned it away.”

Wright did say however that he had some “qualms” about how the story was handled by The Telegraph.

“One is: publishing Matt Hancock‘s Whatsapps may be one thing, because he had given them to Isabel Oakeshott to write a book, with the intention of him being painted in a heroic light. And so there seems to me to be a pretty strong public interest in knowing the truth about what you’re saying [in the memoir].”

But Wright said: “I did feel for Helen Whately, a junior minister. Because they published everybody else’s Whatsapps as well. And I’d be fascinated to hear what people like Helen Whately and [top civil servant] Simon Case or other people involved think about this.”

Wright has had his own brush with an Oakeshott story, having been editor of the Mail on Sunday when a representative of Vicky Pryce approached the paper with the revelation she had taken speeding points on behalf of her husband, then-Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne.

Wright told the committee the Mail on Sunday delayed too long in deciding how to use Pryce’s story without jeopardising her as a source, causing Pryce to go instead to Oakeshott with the information. Oakeshott published the story in The Sunday Times and Pryce did, ultimately, go to prison.

[Read more: Sunday Times journalist Isabel Oakeshott says she fulfilled her moral obligation to Vicky Pryce]

Brennan asked Phillips whether Oakeshott’s apparent betrayal of Hancock risked undermining trust in journalists.

Phillips said: “I think this is quite a specific episode, in that you’ve got a very high-profile politician in the biggest story of our generation giving his Whatsapp messages to a very high-profile journalist.

“So I think there are other things that you could say cause distrust in journalists. I don’t think this is one of them.”

Dinsmore agreed, saying: “I take a similar view. Somebody texted me last week and said ‘Is this a breach of confidentiality?’ 

“And I said it’s probably a breach of ‘confidence’ more than that. And I think that there is a difference there. 

“As Peter said, [Hancock] used this Whatsapp trove to write the book… I don’t think there’s much of a complaint on his part apart from with the person who he had made the agreement with. But I think there is a strong public interest.”

Prompted by Brennan to explain what he meant when he said The Guardian would have treated the messages differently, Hopkins said: “I think that putting Isabel Oakeshott so front and centre of it was problematic — it would have been for us anyway — because Isabel has a view about lockdown, as does The Telegraph.”

He said The Guardian would be “very careful” about intermingling a news story with commentary. “I’m not criticising The Telegraph, the way they’ve done it. I’m just saying we’d have done it differently.”

In another part of the hearing, Phillips told MPs that journalists placed more importance on trust during the Covid-19 pandemic than some politicians did.

Recalling the Mirror and Guardian joint scoop that revealed government advisor Dominic Cummings had broken lockdown in May 2020, she said: “I remember thinking really long and hard, when we ran that story, because I felt a huge level of responsibility.

“‘What if running this story destroys trust to such an extent that the public health message completely breaks down and then people stop abiding by the lockdown rules?’

“And I felt a personal weight of responsibility at that point, but we also felt that the overwhelming need of that, it was in the public interest that it needed to be out there.

“I think sometimes journalists were more concerned about the importance of trust than perhaps some of the people who were making the policy.”

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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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