Former Government digital chief Jimmy Leach has warned against using government data to help inform party political decisions, saying he was “sniffily suspicious” about its’ practice.
Leach, now editor-in-chief at HuffPost UK, made his remarks on the My Digital Hero stage at MadFest London 2019, in conversation with NDA editor Justin Pearse.
Asked if he missed his time in government, where he was head of digital communications at Number Ten and head of digital engagement at the Foreign Office, he said not.
“I would like to be there as an observer but not a participant. I don’t want to spend my days being bollocked by Dominic Cummings.”
He continued: “There is a blurring of lines going on there,” pointing to suggestions that data mined from the Gov.UK platform would be used to make political decisions. “I don’t think that that is particularly healthy,” said Leach. “I am sniffily suspicious.”
Asked about the nefarious use of technology in general, Leach said that it was “really dangerous”. “We are only at the beginning of knowing how so. The outcomes for democracy and society are very different.” Politicians, he said, were quite willing to give out fake information. “It used to be that if you lied you resigned, but know you just shrug and carry on.”
His was one of a series of interviews with heroes from NDA’s My Digital Hero series and he chose to name-check former Guardian Unlimited chief Emily Bell as one of his, having “fudged it” in the previous interview.
“I focused on qualities rather than people,” he said. “I have noticed that the digital industry often lacks a sense of normality and humanity.”
It was important to applaud those leaders who showcased just that, rather than the “monomaniacal” bosses driving business “to the exclusion of the people within it”. “Those who I admire are those who recognise that there is life beyond this industry and there is a balance that you need to strike.”
Bell, now director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, exemplified that.
Leach spoke further about his time at 10 Downing Street in the mid-noughties, and his frustrations in showing how digital could work to interact and engage. For instance, when he arrived there was a button that allowed people to email the PM — but nobody checked the mailbox. “There were a quarter of a million emails inside,” he said. “Challenging that culture takes a long time — to nag and nag and nag.”
Of his current role at HuffPost, he spoke about the need to sensitively straddle journalism’s Church and State. He said: “When done well with transparency and a user journey then it is an asset. You have to have a threshold of trust and ensure that it’s been made with shared brand values with commercial partnerships.”
When asked about whether the title would consider Guardian-style “donations” to help fund the platform Leach, who spent six years at the title, suggested not. A title funded by a trust, as The Guardian and Observer are, was in very a different place to ask for donations than one such as HuffPost, owned by Verizon Media, also parent company of Yahoo!, AOI and TechCrunch.