Rishi Sunak’s WhatsApp mishap points to a bigger question: could this tendency to mishandle communication technology be contagious? Are those that orbit the government in danger of catching some sort of cyber-Covid? It’s possible that the members of the Conservative Party have simply been unlucky but perhaps there’s something more sinister going on.
James Sunderland, MP for Bracknell
As an example, let us look at the good Lady’s geographical namesake. Bracknell is a constituency in Berkshire. It has been represented since 2019 by James Sunderland.
Sunderland may not have accidentally deleted thousands of WhatsApp messages but, like many other Conservative MPs, he has shown an early but reliable symptom of cyber-Covid. Namely, the tendency of having polite but inconvenient comments from constituents on social media disappear from view.
He is one of the influx of parliamentarians who rode on the dubious, dangling shirt tales of Boris Johnson. Like the rest of the 2019 Conservative intake, he signed the undertaking to ‘Get Brexit done’.
Unfortunately for the MP, he signed up to something that has failed. This is now unequivocally clear to anyone outside of the European Research Group. Even Mr Brexit himself, Nigel Farage, called it out on BBC Newsnight as the failure it was always going to be.
This leaves Sunderland and others like him in the position of somehow having to defend a fundamentally indefensible position. Is it any wonder that he’s showing signs of succumbing to cyber-Covid?
Thames Water and the case of the disappearing comment
In November, the MP appeared on Instagram excitedly proclaiming the virtues of Thames Water that had become clear to him when he visited the Bracknell and Sandhurst sewage works. A constituent and local borough councillor, Roy Bailey, posted a polite and wholly reasonable comment under the video.
That comment disappeared.
Picking up the trail, I contacted Sunderland by email. I asked him why the comment disappeared. He replied, not entirely reassuringly, “The simple answer is that I have no idea.”
Is this yet another example of a Conservative MP suffering an unlucky malfunction with communication technology, or is Sunderland showing symptoms of cyber-Covid?
In an unexpected late twist, Bailey’s comment reappeared sometime later. Cyber-Covid truly is an unpredictable condition.
Defending the indefensible
However, the skills Sunderland has learned while defending an indefensible Brexit are coming in quite handy.
In the face of all the evidence, he remains an enthusiastic cheerleader of Thames Water. In his email to me, he proudly banged the big corporate drum asserting, “In terms of the wider observation, everything that I stated in my video is accurate”.
And he wasn’t finished there. The brilliance of the company was heralded some more: “Yes, it may be that Roy is correct too, in that this was a sustained discharge at a time of extreme wet weather and rainwater (this is why they are called storm overflows) but the underlying position outlined by Thames Water is that the frequency, volume, and content of these discharges are significantly lower since 2017, due to the infrastructure investment at both the Bracknell (Warfield) and Sandhurst sites. You will also know that the discharge of raw sewage before 2010 was completely unregulated, unmonitored, and unrestricted.”
Swimming in sewage
I was concerned that the MP may have caught cyber-Covid and that therefore his communications via email may not be as fine and dandy as they seemed. So I decided to probe a little deeper (I do sometimes wish that I would learn to simply nod my head when someone in authority says something convincing, but the curse of my criminal justice background continues to haunt me).
Even a cursory check revealed some alarming inconsistencies.
Thames Water has a live sewage tracker where they monitor real-time sewage discharges. The data log for Saturday 9 December shows that sewage was discharged into The Cut in Bracknell for almost nine hours, and into the Blackwater for two hours. In November, a week before Sunderland dropped in on Thames Water, sewage was discharged into the Blackwater for 12 hours. The night before he posted his video on Instagram, sewage was dumped into The Cut for over an hour.
Sunderland is correct that the discharge situation has improved ─ at least over the period from 2020 to 2022 ─ but discharges are still alarmingly common and prolonged. In 2021, the average number of discharges per storm overflow nationally was 29. At The Cut in Bracknell, there were more than twice that number.
Some other interesting snippets include:
- The Rivers Trust has a longer-term data tracking map, and this shows that in 2022, there were 42 discharges into The Cut in Bracknell, with sewage being dumped into the river there for a total of 463.5 hours over the year. In 2021, there were 67 discharges for a whopping 1,124 hours. In 2020, there were 94 discharges for 1,482 hours.
- The Rivers Trust map also shows that there were 16 discharges into the Emm Brook in Easthampstead Park over 75 hours in 2022, 15 discharges for a total of 86 hours in 2021, and 23 discharges for 179 hours in 2020.
- There were 11 discharges for over 73 hours into the Blackwater in Sandhurst in 2022, 35 discharges for a total of 602 hours in 2021, and 36 discharges for 489 hours in 2020.
- The Environment Agency has said that the reduced number of spills in 2022 “reflects last year’s drier than average weather”.
- Although data has not been released for 2023, it is still likely to show hundreds of hours of discharge into Bracknell Forest’s waterways.
Sunderland asserts that these discharges only take place in extreme weather. However, a drop of rain in the winter months can’t seriously be considered as severe, can it?
And I still have no idea how Roy Bailey’s post was flushed away without trace and then popped up again sometime later. The mystery remains.
In conclusion, I will let you make up your own mind ─ do you sit shoulder to shoulder with Sunderland or do you sit on another stool?