When considering the case of Isabel Oakeshott and her decision to leak Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages, fidelity matters far more than loyalty, says Rev George Pitcher


Source: Alamy

The more we hear of Matt Hancock, the more he becomes an irony-free zone. When journalist Isabel Oakeshott broke her non-disclosure agreement (NDA) to leak the then-health secretary’s Covid-era WhatsApp messages, he described her action as “a massive betrayal”.

As one correspondent to the letters page of The Times so perfectly put it, perhaps Mrs Hancock might be able to tell her errant husband a thing or two about betrayal. But perhaps irony doesn’t cut it. Perhaps it’s the total loss of self-awareness that comes with the sacrifice of political service on the idolatrous altar of celebrity.

Oakeshott is no Judas, either in history or metaphor

But I want to contend that this isn’t really about Hancock, who simply looks sillier by the week. More intriguingly, this is about the nature of betrayal. As the Church remembers Judas Iscariot’s betrayal – perhaps the greatest example of all time - in exactly four weeks, it is worth examination. I’ll come back to Judas in a moment.

Christians in Media’s Steve Cox, meanwhile, has written excellently here about the primacy of journalistic ethics and how they dovetail with Christian conscience. And I don’t want to go there either. Rather, I want to consider if we really know what betrayal is.

Loyalty or fidelity?

We may tend to confuse fidelity, which I offer as the opposite of betrayal, with loyalty. In my view, loyalty is a massively overrated virtue. In fact, it’s not a virtue at all, but more of a mortal quality. Soldiers were loyal to Ratko Mladic as he ordered the massacre of Croats in Bosnia in the 90s. Dogs are loyal to such monsters. Loyalty, of itself, is not necessarily a good thing.

Just as the Jesuit might say that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it’s certainty, so we might propose that the opposite of betrayal isn’t loyalty, it’s fidelity. And fidelity, with faithfulness at its core, owes its allegiance to the truth and, arguably in theological terms, to nothing else. That much probably accords with what my colleague, Steve Cox, had to say.

But this issue gets bogged down when loyalty hangs in the air. And it was the pungent miasma of loyalty that permeated the studio this week when the BBC’s Moral Maze was broadcast. The panel, and its erudite witnesses, considered whether Oakeshott had sinned with her leak to the Daily Telegraph. Had she broken the seal of the confessional by failing to honour her NDA?

Most of the debate centred on whom Oakeshott owed her loyalty to as a journalist. Was it to the public interest or her confidential source? But the point evaporates when you replace loyalty with fidelity. One simply cannot betray if one acts with fidelity.

A righteous pursuit

Which brings me back to Judas. Now, there’s an important disclaimer to be made before I take my argument here. To paraphrase Terry Jones in The Life of Brian, Hancock is not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy. So I don’t wish to make a direct comparison, blasphemous or otherwise.

I just want to say that the strongest phrase that emerged from the Moral Maze was that “motive determines the righteousness of the pursuit”. We can have no idea where that gets us with Oakeshott’s WhatsApp leaks. Maybe she was offered 30 pieces of silver by The Telegraph; maybe she believed that the public, who had suffered so dreadfully during Covid, deserved to know what government was or wasn’t doing about it. We simply can’t know.

But we can know where it gets us with Judas Iscariot. It’s inconceivable that he was motivated by the blood money he was offered by the Temple authorities for the Nazarene’s scalp, which he anyway throws back at them.

Loyalty is a massively overrated virtue

Far more likely is that he thinks he is precipitating the final culmination of the Christ’s mission. He’s right, of course, but not in the way he imagines. It all goes horribly wrong and he hangs himself. This version of events is supported by the apparently apostolic mission that Jesus gives him at the Last Supper, to do what he must do.

So his motivation may determine Judas’s righteousness. He has still, however, done a very wicked thing, in order to serve God’s purpose. It has nothing to do with despoiling the sanctity of the confessional and very little to do with betrayal. It has an awful lot more to do with the opposite of betrayal, which is fidelity, not loyalty.

As I say, there are dangers in eliding the Passion of the Christ with the passions of Hancock. And Oakeshott is no Judas, either in history or metaphor. It’s just worth noting that the transformational nature of God, turning darkness into eternal light, uses human weaknesses and frailties to do its work.