Why I helped expose the British ambassador’s cables: Journalist, 19, behind Trump scoop comes forward to reveal his motivation and fears he is being targeted by security services
- Journalist Steven Edginton, 19, fears he is being targeted by security services
- The person who leaked the explosive Washington Files was his trusted source
- In April, he began working as a digital strategist for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party
- Mr Edginton says his story was not a ‘Brexiteer plot to topple Sir Kim Darroch’
Lying awake at 2am last Wednesday and unable to sleep for the third night in a row, I listened as footsteps crunched up and down the gravel outside my ground-floor flat.
For one alarming moment I thought the police were preparing to storm through my front door and arrest me. I looked out of the curtains – but no one was there.
Paranoid? Hardly. A few hours later, Home Office Minister Nick Hurd stood in the House of Commons and refused to rule out deploying the ‘full force of the state’ to identify the person who leaked Sir Kim Darroch’s embarrassingly undiplomatic cables about US President Donald Trump.
I am not the leaker – I am a young journalist – but I did play a critical role in the publication of a story that has reverberated on both sides of the Atlantic.
Steven Edginton is the young journalist behind the the explosive Mail on Sunday Washington Files scoops who fears he is now being targeted by the security services
Sir Kim Darroch was forced to resign from his role as ambassador to the United States over a series of leaked memos in which he criticised the Trump administration
Tens of thousands of words have been devoted to speculation about the motivation behind the disclosure. Most have been wrong.
Today I want to set the record straight and reveal the real story about how Sir Kim’s diplomatic cables entered the public domain.
I am sorry to disappoint the conspiracy theorists but this was not a Brexiteer plot to topple Sir Kim, nor was it some devilish scheme to torpedo the independence of the Civil Service by installing a political appointee in Washington. Instead, it was simply an honest journalistic endeavour.
As a 19-year-old freelance journalist with a passion for politics, I was looking for a big project through which to develop my career.
I decided to aim big and investigate how the Civil Service has been preparing for Brexit, including what senior Government officials really think about our impending departure from the European Union.
There had been repeated reports claiming that Europhile mandarins have been quietly working to thwart the result of the referendum. I just wanted to discover the truth.
Over seven months, I spoke to a large number of Whitehall sources, including both retired and current civil servants.
Mr Edginton, a 19-year-old freelance journalist, insists that his role in the leaking of Sir Kim’s diplomatic telegrams was not a ‘Brexiteer plot’ to topple the ambassador
From that work I provided exclusive stories for national newspapers, including The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Sun’s website and The Mail on Sunday.
But last month, my investigation took an extraordinary turn when a trusted source read out to me an astonishing letter written by Sir Kim in June 2017 to Sir Mark Sedwill, Britain’s national security adviser. In it, Sir Kim branded Trump’s White House ‘inept’ and ‘utterly dysfunctional’.
I was shocked by the brutal language from a supposedly impartial diplomat.
I knew this was a big story – but little did I know just how big.
I spent several days mulling over what to do before contacting Isabel Oakeshott, a highly experienced journalist with whom I have worked.
We developed the story together before providing it to The Mail on Sunday. Given the possible controversy, we decided to leave my name out of it.
I was having dinner in Pizza Express with a friend when Isabel informed me that our story would be on the front page the next morning. Like any journalist would be, I was excited and proud that my story was about to get such prominence.
But neither Isabel nor I expected it to have such a huge impact – but then why should we?
Donald Trump branded Sir Kim a ‘pompous fool’, a ‘very stupid guy’, and declared that his administration would no longer work with him
After all, the Foreign Office, fully aware of the contents of the story ahead of its publication, had breezily brushed off the leak, saying in a statement that its Washington team’s strong relations with the White House ‘will withstand such mischievous behaviour’.
Of course this made great sense. Britain’s special relationship with the US has endured for decades, despite many bumps in the road.
What changed everything was the volcanic rage that the leaked cables provoked from Donald Trump. In a series of fiery tweets, he branded Sir Kim a ‘pompous fool’, a ‘very stupid guy’, and declared that his administration would no longer work with him.
The Foreign Office was left reeling: Britain’s man in Washington had been humbled and the diplomatic establishment in London left red-faced.
The story and its ramifications featured on the front pages for five consecutive days and continued to snowball. And this gets to the heart of why I have today decided to speak out.
Mr Edginton approached journalist Isabel Oakeshott to help work on the scoop which was splashed by the Mail on Sunday
No one can deny that this was an intensely embarrassing episode for the Government, but I challenge anyone to show how the publication of these cables and memos in any way imperilled national security – a point our likely future Prime Minister Boris Johnson made last week.
Indeed, as the latest crisis in the Gulf flared up, Trump went out of his way to stress the ‘very close alliance with the UK’.
These cables did not contain any state secrets. Sir Kim was simply articulating what many in Washington and Whitehall have said about the President and his advisers since he took office.
Crucially, the publication of the cables gave readers a first-hand insight into how the then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson launched a failed bid to persuade Mr Trump not to ditch the international nuclear deal with Iran.
The consequences of that decision are this weekend being dramatically played out with the seizure of a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz.
I believe there is the greatest public interest in informing voters, decision-makers and ordinary people – including Britain’s brave Servicemen and women – of the background to these events.
I was, therefore, astonished when Scotland Yard announced nine days ago that its counter-terrorism command had launched a criminal investigation. It was clear to me that they had given in to political pressure.
Nor could I believe the chilling threat from Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu to newspapers not to publish any leaked cables in future – or face prosecution.
It was a statement that could have been written in North Korea. I think it is punitive, it’s intrusive and it’s an attack on free speech – something a raft of politicians from Jeremy Hunt to Matt Hancock and even Labour’s John McDonnell agree with.
What had initially been treated by the Foreign Office as a bit of ‘mischief’ was now seen as a potential breach of the Official Secrets Act.
The leaks revealed an an astonishing letter written by Sir Kim (pictured) in June 2017 to Sir Mark Sedwill, Britain’s national security adviser. In it, Sir Kim branded Trump’s White House ‘inept’ and ‘utterly dysfunctional’
Embarrassment has become rage but the draconian over-reaction has made me more determined than ever to continue my career as an investigative journalist.
The political storm in which I now find myself is a world away from where this began for me five years ago. I started posting videos about politics on YouTube when I was 14 and a student at a state school in Portsmouth.
The European election in 2014 had seen Nigel Farage’s Ukip take 24 seats and 27 per cent of the popular vote. It was the first time since 1910 that a party other than Labour or the Tories had won the largest number of seats in a national election.
I was transfixed. I had not grown up in a political household and I have no family connections in Westminster, but my mum and sister are both pretty Left-wing and we would have lively debates.
I became particularly interested in the cut and thrust of Prime Minister’s Questions and began to edit silly videos of David Cameron having a go at Ed Miliband.
I then started interviewing journalists, commentators and politicians, from both the Left and Right of politics, and posting them on my YouTube channel.
Mandarin plotted MoS attack with Met
By Harry Cole, deputy political editor for the Mail On Sunday
Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill
Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill plotted with the Metropolitan Police over an extraordinary attack on press freedom, The Mail on Sunday has learned.
After this newspaper published explosive diplomatic cables, the country’s most powerful civil servant, pictured, had to be ‘talked out’ of sending a letter threatening prosecution.
Hours later, Met Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu publicly threatened to jail journalists for printing sensitive leaked documents.
He added that the publication of such material was a breach of the Official Secrets Act and ‘could also constitute a criminal offence’, and demanded journalists hand over any documents that they were holding.
Mr Basu’s statement sparked a furious backlash from across the political divide, led by leadership contenders Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, but Downing Street pointedly refused to condemn the menacing intervention.
Last Monday, neither No 10 nor Scotland Yard would comment on how the statement came about, but the MoS has been told Sir Mark and the Cabinet Office was in ‘constant contact’ with the Met and had implied their hardline would be backed up by the Government.
But a police source said Mr Basu had been ‘left high and dry’ after the Government rowed back on plans to attempt to silence this newspaper through the courts.
It is understood Mr Basu’s statement followed an intense debate at the top of Government about how to react to a fresh wave of leaks in last week’s MoS.
A senior Government source said: ‘The Cabinet Office wanted to send a letter directly threatening prosecution to The Mail on Sunday but was talked out of it by Ministers.’
It is understood that an injunction was discussed, but in the end it was decided the threat of prosecution was best made by the police rather than the Cabinet Office.
And a senior Downing Street source said it was ‘unfathomable’ the Cabinet Office was not aware of what Mr Basu was planning on saying.
However, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman repeatedly refused to say exactly what contact there had been between Whitehall and Scotland Yard, insisting only that the statements were ‘a matter for the Met’.
One Minister told the MoS that the Cabinet Office felt ‘blindsided’ at the scale of the leak, and ‘were in a total panic about quantity’.
Police are continuing to hunt the source of the leak, but mandarins admit it is an uphill challenge. Foreign Office Permanent Secretary Sir Simon McDonald told MPs: ‘Although all these emails and details originated from the Foreign Office… they were distributed across Whitehall so the readership was very wide.’
An interview I did with Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s ex-spin doctor, has had more than 28,000 views, while another with Peter Hitchens, The Mail on Sunday columnist and commentator, has had more than 100,000.
After taking my A-levels at Bishop Luffa School in Chichester, I won a place at the London School of Economics but opted instead to make the most of my digital skills.
I worked first as a video journalist for a political website called Westmonster before stints as a digital strategist at the Taxpayers’ Alliance and Leave Means Leave campaign. Since April, I have worked for the Brexit Party, helping run its social media feeds.
I appreciate that my CV – and my pro-Brexit views – will inevitably fuel the conspiracy theories but I want to be absolutely clear: the leak of Sir Kim’s cables had absolutely nothing to do with the Brexit Party.
I decided to start investigating the Civil Service in January completely on my own initiative.
I had recorded a video about the EU for my YouTube channel at the end of last year and was told that some civil servants were driving the negotiations with Brussels in a very pro-Remain way. It sparked my interest.
I began speaking to current civil servants, ex-civil servants, politicians and journalists to get an understanding of what the role of the Civil Service has been during Brexit.
I had a list of questions that I wanted answered: how accountable are civil servants? How politicised is the Civil Service? How has Theresa May’s leadership style impacted the role of the Civil Service in government? Does the Civil Service need reform?
I was shocked by what I was told about how some Whitehall departments are run – by the waste, the incompetence and the lack of accountability. I learnt of an atmosphere of fear gripping the Civil Service.
This key pillar of the British establishment appears to be dominated by people who support Remain and those who have different views are targeted and singled out. One source broke down in tears as we spoke about what was going wrong.
Some of the most extraordinary things I learned involved the Foreign Office. One source told me about a reception in London with the ambassador of a close UK ally.
During the event, a British diplomat was heard, by both his own colleagues and their counterparts from the foreign government, to loudly declare that the ambassador was a ‘Tory w*****’.
Sir Kim’s comments about Trump were jaw-dropping and suggested a lack of impartiality.
It was clear to me as soon as the President tweeted that Sir Kim would have to resign. I took – and take – no pleasure in his downfall but nor did I feel particularly sad that he will soon be leaving his post.
Nor do I regret my role in the story, although the events of the past fortnight have taken their toll. I have lost weight and struggled to sleep.
My parents know I have been working with Isabel on the story but I have not told them the details of my involvement.
Facing the possibility of arrest at any minute, I texted my father with a simple message on Thursday: ‘Prepare for the worst.’
I have constantly tried to distract myself by working hard during the day and then immersing myself in music and movies when I am at home.
But the knowledge that the state’s security apparatus is stretching every sinew to identify my source has left me suspicious of everything. I have been looking over my shoulder and on edge with anxiety.
Since April, Steven Edginton has worked for the Brexit Party (Nigel Farage pictured at a party rally), helping run its social media feeds
Last week I was eating my lunch in Victoria Tower Gardens near the Houses of Parliament when I spotted a middle-aged man dressed as a tourist taking pictures of me.
He then furtively ducked behind a tree before, I think, getting into a white van.
Was it the security services? Am I being followed? I will probably never know. It is not hard, however, to see shadows everywhere when you know that police have ordered counter-terrorism specialists to arrest your source.
Isabel also believes she has evidence of state surveillance. One of her research assistants detected that his Snapchat account had been repeatedly accessed from a location near Gloucester. The GCHQ spy agency is in Cheltenham.
I am now braced for the inevitable backlash that will come from going public. I expect to come under political attack, I think surveillance on me will step up, and my life will be intruded on in multiple ways.
Mr Edginton says that one of Ms Oakeshott’s assistant’s had his Snapchat account accessed from a location near Gloucester, the base of GCHQ (headquarters pictured)
Do I expect to be arrested? I honestly don’t know. I just hope that in the liberal, free society that Britain is meant to cherish, that police do not go around arresting journalists.
But there is one thing I know for certain: I won’t tell anyone the name of my source – and never will.
The source did not have to speak to me – or to drop such a huge story in my lap. The source did not ask for, or receive, any money for speaking up.
It was a brave and courageous action to take. I admire the chutzpah. And I am fully aware that while I am in a tricky situation, the source is in a far worse position.
I hope the public – and the police – will understand that I cannot betray that extraordinary trust.
DAVID DAVIS: We must protect the free British press from state bullies
BY DAVID DAVIS FOR THE MAIL ON SUNDAY
Press freedom is the most vital freedom because it underpins all the others. When governments allow that freedom to be corroded they undermine the very foundations of our democracy.
For that reason we need a new Official Secrets Act, and a general protection for press freedom against the rapidly developing intrusive powers of the modern State.
The events of the past few weeks have demonstrated only too clearly why this is necessary.
Indeed, when The Mail on Sunday published extracts of diplomatic telegrams from our ambassador in Washington criticising President Trump, it was threatened by the Metropolitan Police with an investigation using ‘the full force of the State’.
Press freedom is the most vital freedom because it underpins all the others. When governments allow that freedom to be corroded they undermine the very foundations of our democracy, writes David Davis
Did the police then act on this threat? Did they trawl through journalists’ phone records and spy on their social media accounts? Did they follow reporters and covertly photograph them?
The truth is that we simply cannot know. And, so far, the Government has refused to issue a denial – a truly disturbing state of affairs.
Nobody would take away from the State the right to protect its secrets, particularly those that affect the safety of the citizen.
However, too often in modern times, governments and State agencies have tried to use secrecy laws to protect themselves from embarrassment – or worse, punish those who have already embarrassed them.
The last time the Official Secrets Act was rewritten was after a British jury threw out the prosecution of Clive Ponting, a civil servant who revealed facts about the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano.
The jury did this despite being instructed to convict by the judge, clearly because they thought this was a political prosecution rather than one designed to protect our nation.
Assistant Comissioner Neil Basu has launched a criminal investigation into the alleged leaking of official communications involving Sir Kim Darroch
Only six weeks ago, the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland demolished a case brought by the Police Service of Northern Ireland against two journalists who had made a TV programme accusing the police of collusion and cover-up of the Loughinisland massacre carried out by loyalist terrorists 25 years ago.
The journalists were accused of breaching the Official Secrets Act and receiving stolen property because they used a leaked document that had been sent to them anonymously.
After the Lord Chief Justice ruled that the police search warrants had been unlawful, the case collapsed.
Had the police succeeded, every single investigative journalist in the country would have been crippled in their pursuit of the truth about government failures, incompetence or misdemeanours.
Most of us who served in government deplore leaks of diplomatic telegrams. They make the operation of the Foreign Office more difficult.
But the telegrams published by The Mail on Sunday were hardly the epitome of State secrets.
They were the comments of a leading member of the mandarin class about an American administration they do not like.
Had they contained dangerous information – the identities of intelligence agents in hostile countries or details of a forthcoming Special Forces attack on IS – then the Government would have used the DSMA procedure (a warning from the Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee, previously known as a D-Notice) to stop publication.
That the Government made no attempt to do that – despite ample prior warning of publication – tells you that the information carried no risk of damaging our country.
Former Brexit Secretary David Davis has backed the Mail on Sunday’s decision to publish
The report carried by The Mail on Sunday was of real and legitimate public interest and this newspaper is to be commended for standing up to a clumsy attempt at State bullying.
It is interesting, too, that Whitehall is quite so heavy-handed when the story clashes with the interests of the Establishment.
When I was Secretary of State for Brexit there were numerous leaks of sensitive information that undermined our negotiating position and our national interest.
There were the normal legal inquiries and, when the source of the leak was found, the person concerned lost their job.
But there was no suggestion of criminal charges against the individual who was the source of the leaks, and absolutely no suggestion that we should prosecute the newspapers that carried them. I would consider such an idea repulsive.
The trouble is that legislation such as the Official Secrets Act and other security statutes such as the Investigatory Powers Act (which allows the Government to obtain communications data) are deliberately written to be so complex and all-encompassing that whenever the State chooses to prosecute, it can.
For example, it is an offence under the Act to damage the nation’s international relations – a power so vague and sweeping it would give the State an excuse to bring heavy-handed measures against newspapers like The Mail on Sunday in a variety of different circumstances.
I doubt any British jury would actually convict a journalist on such a basis. Nevertheless, the bullying and bluster of the State are corrosive of free speech and will certainly have a chilling effect on investigative journalism. As will the methods that may well have been used in recent days.
Checking of journalist phones can tell the police exactly where they have been, for example.
An analysis of the statistics generated by the phone will tell them to whom they have spoken or sent text messages.
Investigators don’t even need to read the contents of intercepted messages to catch a journalist’s sources.
Such an approach puts every public-spirited whistleblower at risk, which in turn means many stories that should be in the public domain will never see the light of day.
We urgently need a new Official Secrets Act, and we need an explicit statutory protection for journalists acting in the public interest. The treatment of The Mail on Sunday over the past few weeks demands nothing less.
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