Internal emails and instant messages released under Freedom of Information laws reveal the fury inside the Ministry of Justice after BuzzFeed News was leaked a report that the department had insisted didn’t exist.
Using abusive language about this reporter, MoJ staff say in one online chat, “Yeah she’s a real bitch”, “And a but crazy reallt [sic]”.
The correspondence was released following a Subject Access Request. Much of the material was heavily redacted, including sections where the conversation was clearly relevant. One page has the phrase “what’s the crack with dugan?” followed by multiple lines of redaction.
The most aggressive language happens in instant messages amongst MoJ staff after BuzzFeed News published an article about a leaked internal report that contained explosive testimony from judges and prosecutors about the impact on the justice system of the rising number of unrepresented people in criminal court.
Penelope Gibbs, director of the charity Transform Justice, who was the first to push for the research to be made public, said: “No journalist should be subject to such abuse, particularly in pursuit of a legitimate and important story. It would be great if the Ministry of Justice would focus on the real problems faced by unrepresented defendants rather than on keeping information secret.”
The research was commissioned by the government to review the impact of cuts to legal aid made in the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) and was based on in-depth interviews with 15 crown court judges and six prosecutors. The government is about to publish a review of the impact of the legislation, though criminal legal aid continues to be absent from much of the discussions about it, despite it introducing means testing to crown court cases for the first time, pricing some people out of a defence.
The report was leaked to BuzzFeed News after the MoJ released a brief, sanitised, six-page summary of the research and claimed it was the full study and that no previous longer version existed. The subsequent article included conversations and an email with an MoJ press officer who had insisted the previous week that this substantive report did not exist. In the online chat, one staff member says “it’s shitty of her to quote the emails”.
Following the publication of the article, the press office’s response was to advise staff to “avoid talking to Emily Dugan on the phone in any more detail than is absolutely necessary” and to refuse to meet.
None of the internal messages express any concern at the very serious warnings made by the judges that were removed from the summary version that was released to BuzzFeed under FOI. Despite being asked directly in internal messages, nobody satisfactorily explains why the judges’ quotes were removed or why the more critical findings were excised.
The Secret Barrister, the anonymous criminal barrister and author who rose to prominence after writing a book of the same name which exposed the crumbling of the justice system, said: “It is deeply concerning that civil servants in the Ministry of Justice appear to have been politicised to the extent that they are deliberately frustrating legitimate journalistic inquiry.
“From a department with an ignoble recent history of cover-ups and failures to disclose important information (as highlighted in High Court judgments), this is perhaps unsurprising, but nevertheless shocking. The sexist ‘banter’ and open contempt with which civil servants are discussing a respected journalist who is simply seeking information adds to fears of many in the legal profession that the culture in the Ministry of Justice has become toxic.”
After receiving follow-up calls from other news outlets wanting to cover the leaked report, the press office boasted in a weekly media summary of successfully dissuading other reporters from covering it: “Through strong briefing we successfully knocked down the majority of the reports aiming to replicate BuzzFeed’s accusation of lying and covering-up. We issued a reactive line to those who were interested in reporting the judges’ comments, which were included in the draft report. We also briefed No10 ahead of lobby, thereby giving the PM’s spokesman lines to knock the story down for Lobby journalists, containing the story further.” The story was later followed up by the Mirror, the Times, and the i newspaper, amongst others.
In emails and messages amongst department staff, the unredacted sections show press officers repeatedly saying that the 36-page report leaked to BuzzFeed News was a draft and had not been “robust” enough for publication. They say the sanitised, six-page summary released under FOI was created for this reason.
A small section of the 36-page report dealt with a secondary piece of research into magistrates’ courts, using a relatively small data sample. It is arguable that this could have been taken out for academic reasons — though the department has relied on smaller sample sizes when the findings are more convenient. However, this does not explain why the judges’ quotes were removed or why their more critical findings were edited out. The MoJ did not answer specific questions on this point.
A Law Society spokesperson said: “Public interest journalism serves a vitally important function in a healthy democracy. Investigative journalism of this nature discloses information affecting the public and holds governments and other institutions to account.
“People will wonder why the Ministry of Justice chose at first not to disclose the full report. The research into unrepresented defendants contains important information that should not have been suppressed. Ultimately, the report underscored the fact that twenty years of cuts have pushed the criminal justice system to its limits. The number of solicitors now specialising in criminal law has plummeted, and people are being denied access to legal representation because they live on a low income. This undermines the rule of law and equal access to justice for all citizens.”
BuzzFeed News has applied to the Information Commissioner to review a decision to close a criminal investigation into the department over its handling of the report.
The material from the MoJ arrived in the same week as the deadline to submit a case, meaning it did not arrive in time to inform it. Despite asking for it in digital form, a pile of disorganised printed paper covered in redactions was posted at the expense of the taxpayer.
Amongst the redactions was a blank where this reporter’s surname should be. An email on July 12 reads: “Hi Guys, we have another request from Emily [redacted] of BuzzFeed...” After they were asked if the word used in place of a surname was another term of abuse, the MoJ said it was a press officer’s surname.
A Bar Council spokesperson said: “It is in the public interest that policy decisions about justice funding and legal aid should be made in the light of all relevant information. We are hopeful that in publishing the forthcoming review of LASPO, the Ministry of Justice will be transparent and open.”
The casual sexism of press officers was also noticeable in instant messages. In a conversation on May 2, one press officer boasts, “I’m starting to warm up Emily Dugan”, later adding, “I was giving her my best lines, ‘This doesn’t have to be an adversarial relationship’, ‘Do you call here often?’”
An MoJ spokesperson said: “All relevant information has been disclosed under data protection rules in a sizeable release which confirms over multiple internal emails that there has been no deliberate attempt to withhold information — information that is not personal data is not in scope and has been redacted.
“We were extremely disappointed to see that some of the language used in a small number of internal conversations was unprofessional. We take this seriously —appropriate internal action is being taken and a personal apology was extended to Ms Dugan.
“Two senior members of the press team have met with Ms Dugan over the last few months and we continue to answer her queries as efficiently and fully as we are able, as we do all the journalists we work with.”