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DEBATE: Cabinet leaks are good in a democracy, actually

My esteemed colleague Gary Kavanagh believes this argument is incorrect, and has written a response to it here. When you’re finished reading this, go check it out.

In recent weeks, attention has focused on the rather amusing news that a senior Fine Gael Minister, who must remain nameless because of journalistic ethics, and our defamation laws, has been caught briefing the media against his colleagues, and leaking cabinet information. Much as we might all heartily desire to see the Minister in question named, and potentially prosecuted, that would be a bad outcome in a democracy.

One of the benefits of a democratic system is that it places limitations on what those who rule us can do – at least in theory. One of the particular benefits of a system where politicians depend on the support of the public is that there is always an incentive for other politicians to undermine them by revealing embarrassing information. In another system – a despotic monarchy, or a dictatorship – for example, where there are no real opportunities for advancement, there are few, if any, incentives to undermine the ruler. In our system, however, undermining the ruler, so that you can replace them, is the name of the game. That is a good thing.

Just as the free market, when it works properly (an important caveat), turns greed (a negative) into something positive for society at large by incentivising inventiveness and efficiency, so too our system turns something negative (ruthless ambition) into a positive for society, by creating incentives to reveal wrongdoing.

Of course, a lot of the time, the information leaked is useless and petty. But sometimes, as in the case of ZapponeGate, the leaking Minister did the country a service by undermining his Fine Gael colleagues. That may not have been his intention, of course, but a service is what he performed nonetheless.

There are, and must be, of course, laws against certain leaks. The Tánaiste is presently being investigated because of the allegation that he leaked commercially sensitive information to somebody who stood, potentially, to gain from it. If that allegation (and it remains only an allegation) is proven, then he will have to resign. There is a difference, though, between leaking material which can benefit an individual, to an individual (for example, leaking commercially sensitive pricing information to a competitor company, in the process of a procurement) and leaking information which is in the public interest.

Nobody stood to gain, financially, as a result of the leaks in recent weeks. No major public policy initiative was undermined. All that happened was that a grubby cabinet deal came to light, and the cronyism involved in it was made public for us all to see. The Minister who leaked it may well have done so to harm his cabinet colleagues, and further his own advancement, but his motives make little difference to the fact that this was information we all deserved to know.

For as long as we must endure politicians, we will have to endure incompetence, ambition, backstabbing, and corruption. It is good, then, that we have a system that incentivises them to reveal it to us themselves.

The real story here, of course, is that everybody in the media knows who the leaker is, but nobody can name him, because he leaks so extensively that everybody is bound by the journalistic ethic that we never name our sources. Everybody in politics knows his name, too. The real punishment that he faces is not any legal sanction, or public scandal, but the fact that by coming at the King (Mr. Varadkar) and missing, he has done his own future chances very serious harm. That’s not because he leaked – Mr. Varadkar could hardly publicly sanction that, given his own record – but because he’s been caught. The highest law in politics is tribalism. The leaker has sinned against his tribe, and gotten caught. That’s punishment enough.

 

Read an alternative view here

DEBATE: Cabinet Leaker should be sacked, ideally prosecuted

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