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It’s our old friend economical with the actualité
Sky News has reported that “Downing Street has confirmed Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary and arguably the second most important person in government, had coronavirus at the same time as the prime minister”.
It now seems that Boris Johnson, Sedwill, Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Scientific Officer who was ‘self-isolating’ because of COVID-19 symptoms, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary who tested positive for COVID-19, and the PM Boris Johnson who was in a critical condition in intensive care in St.Thomas’s Hospital; were all either self-isolating or infected by COVID-19 around the same time in April.
While some of this was in the public domain (perhaps because the public and media would probably spot the absence, if the PM or Health Secretary both suddenly disappeared for a week or more without any explanation), but the public was not told that Sir Mark Sidwell was infected. Indeed Sky reports that, “Whitehall decided to keep the news that he had gone down with the disease a secret” which was “too sensitive a piece of news for the public to handle”.
The rumour-mill of Whitehall hinted that Sedwill was infected however, but Downing Street responded to enquiries at the time by reporting that, Sedwill “was ‘fine’ and was working as normal”. In an extraordinary development Sky report that, the PM’s spokesman confessed, “he too only found out from a journalist …. …. despite happily answering the questions about him being fine at the time”. Sky reports that Downing Street dismissed this confession as no big deal, because Sedwill “was ‘working as normal’, just from home despite the symptoms”; in spite of the suggestion that even officials in the Cabinet Office did not know of his condition.
We may suppose all this fits well with the grand Whitehall credo, defined by the Armstrong maxim for inconvenient facts, which are reduced to size and pulped to indecipherability through suitably opaque wording that is ‘’economical with the truth’’ (Sir William Armstrong ,1915-80; Head of the Home Civil Service). The phrase demonstrates the technique. Armstrong delivered it in the witness box at the famous ‘Spycatcher’ book trial in 1986. The exchange with the advocate cross-examining was as follows, at the end of questioning about telling the truth, lying, and the explanatory suitability of the term ‘misleading impression’, used by Armstrong:
Barrister: What is the difference between a misleading impression and a lie?
Armstrong: A lie is a straight untruth.
Barrister: What is a misleading impression – a sort of bent untruth?
Armstrong: As one person said, it is perhaps being “economical with the truth”.
The origin of the phrase is Edmund Burke (1729-97), in ‘Letters on a Regicide Peace’ (1795–97). Alan Clark later amended the phrase in another famous trial; the Matrix Churchill trial in 1992, when as Conservative Minister of Trade he was caught in a delicate quandary over conflicting statements made regarding the sale of machine tools to Saddam Hussein: Clark’s response to the Barrister cross-examining him in the witness box said, “it’s our old friend economical… with the actualité”. Yes, economical with the truth seems to follow Conservative Governments and Whitehall around; like the smell of a skunk.
In the case of Boris Johnson, the PM who by his own post-ICU account was near death in St.Thomas’s Hospital, we can now see how the Armstrong maxim actually works; for in the PM’s case, while Johnson was at death’s door, the reporting of the event was less than informative. On 7th April the PM was taken into intensive care, but the BBC still thought it worth reporting online that the PM had tweeted on April 6th that he was “in good spirits”, in spite of the fact that as news it was no longer wearing terribly well; and on 8th April the slightly more Delphic but still positive news was presented that he was “responding to treatment”; in addition the BBC reported “The prime minister was being kept in St Thomas’ Hospital in London ‘for close monitoring’ and remained clinically stable, his official spokesman said. Downing Street said he was not working but could contact those he needed to”. The critical nature of his actual condition was not reported. It was all rather more like the kind of reporting we might expect in Edwardian or war-time reporting of great events; when the public was given only official news they were deemed capable of handling, or that was good for them; or at least good for the Government, and delivered only when the time, and content were considered ‘right’. It seems little has changed in Whitehall.
Why does any of this matter? It matters because as Sky acknowledges, it “goes to the heart of whether we can trust officials in the most deadly crisis this country is facing”, and then Sky goes on to pose a fundamental question: “what other pieces of ‘too hot to handle’ information fall into the category of things that the public can’t be trusted with?”
The question for us; the public is this. Do you trust the British Government to tell you the truth now, and if so on what grounds do you have this confidence?