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Monday, 17 July, 2000, 13:54 GMT 14:54 UK
A leak for the plugging

As Prime Minister Tony Blair has learned to his cost, confidential documents have a habit of leaking into the public domain. Should, or could, such holes be plugged?

The prime minister's personal musings about the "Touchstone" issues of British politics have made a frontpage splash.

A victory for his press officers? No. A coup for his spin doctors? No. One up for the Whitehall moles.
PM Tony Blair
Loose lips: Leaks can come from careless talk

The three-page memo in question is the latest in a long line of sensitive government documents to find their way into the open.

Following a rash of embarrassing disclosures, a fortnight ago Tony Blair vowed to put a stop to the leaks.

The threat of "instant dismissal" has not, it seems, put paid to the desire of some at the heart of government to go public. The leak of a prime minister's memos is unprecedented.

Holey to blame

Richard Jacques-Turner, a veteran investigator and the new executive director of the World Association of Detectives, says few organisations - public or private - take adequate steps to prevent such leaks.

"Most organisations don't take any care in any way. What you need is a good security man in the top strata of management and a boss willing to say: 'Do what the security expert says or you're out.'"

Mr Jacques-Turner says modern communications technology presents greater challenges to those trying to guard confidential information from the prying eyes of rivals or the media.
PM Tony Blair with a laptop computer
Electronic mail is another source of leaks

"With the increased use of electronic mail and the rise in computer hacking, inevitably there will be an increase in the problem."

However, Mr Jacques-Turner says that while firewalls and encryption may offer some defence against this, tackling low-tech leaks should remain the priority.

"Most leaks are due to human error. It's careless talk, documents being left on fax machines or contents of wastepaper bins not being shredded."

American firms take the prospect of leaks so seriously that they support a whole new service sector of shredder lorries.

Well shred

One company, Shred-it, has emblazoned its fleet of travelling shedding machines with the motto: "Our business is to ensure nobody knows yours."

On this side of the pond, lax security arrangements combine with human fallibility to aid the work of industrial spies and journalists alike.

Finding the source of leaks under these conditions is more down to luck than detection skills.
Fax machine
Face fax: Leaks can result from human error

"If you don't implement systems to narrow down the number of places where leaks can actually come from, then you don't have a prayer of finding the person responsible," says Mr Jacques-Turner.

Of course, disclosing confidential information has its place, if it is in the public interest.

Thanks to last year's Public Interest Disclosure Act, workers are now protected if they blow the whistle on malpractice, corruption and other wrong-doing.

However, Anna Myers, legal officer with Public Concern at Work, says running to the media should not be the whistleblower's first move.

Route cause

Public Concern at Work is keen to encourage employers to create internal or external routes to deal with their workers' worries.

"These are things employers should want to hear about, things they should want to be told about.

"If they want to do something about leaks or documents leaving the company domain, employers need to promote a culture where they listen to their employees' concerns," says Ms Myers.
PM Tony Blair with Peter Mandelson MP
You never know who's listening in

Labour MP Diane Abbott seems to agree.

"Leaks in an institution like [the government] are symptoms of tensions and unhappiness. You can't physically stop people leaking information, but you can resolve the tensions and unhappiness."

Should an employer fail to respond to your concerns, a whistleblower approaching the media or other organisation will need proof of the malpractice they have witnessed.

In this case it may prove neccessary to remove documents from company premises.

Cracking down hard on leaks can prove self defeating. Feeling themselves under suspicion, workers may see the practice as the only way to voice their concerns.

"It's getting the balance right between the interests of the employer and the employee," says Ms Myers. "Prevention is better than cure."

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See also:

17 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Inquiry into leaked Blair memo
17 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Most damaging leak yet
17 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Full text of Blair memo
02 Jul 99 | UK Politics
Whistleblowers protected by law
01 Dec 98 | Office Life
Time to stand up and be counted?
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