Tuesday briefing: How Mark MacGann revealed the secret history of Uber

In today’s newsletter: Inside the story of the man who leaked explosive evidence of company’s expansion strategy

Good morning. On Sunday, the Guardian published the first in a series of reports drawn from more than 124,000 documents that reveal the ruthless playbook that cemented Uber’s status as one of the defining tech giants of the era. Last night, in an exclusive interview with the Guardian, the man who leaked the Uber files revealed his identity.

Mark MacGann, a career lobbyist who worked at the company from 2014 to 2016, is uniquely placed to explain how Uber did it: he was a central player in its strategy for breaking into new markets, and resisting regulators and politicians who wanted to stop it.

As the ultimate insider to the nexus of corporate and government interests, you might think he would be the last person who would want to reveal these kinds of details of how the system works. Nonetheless, his face is on the front page of the Guardian this morning, and you can hear him on the Today in Focus podcast – and his story is being told by partner news organisations around the world.

In today’s newsletter, the Guardian’s head of investigations, Paul Lewis – who first met MacGann at a Geneva hotel six months ago – talks about how the source made this seismic decision. First, here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Tory leadership | Britain’s new prime minister will be announced on 5 September, it has been announced, as the starting gun was fired on a Tory leadership race that will see the hopefuls whittled down to two by Thursday.

  2. Mo Farah | The four-time Olympic champion has revealed that he was illegally trafficked into Britain under the name of another child as a nine-year-old and forced into domestic servitude. He was born as Hussein Abdi Kahin.

  3. Crime | A 15-year-old boy has been jailed for the murder of 12-year-old Ava White for a minimum of 13 years. The teenager is one of the UK’s youngest convicted murderers.

  4. Cost of living | A study tracking more than 6,000 UK households has found that the cost of living crisis has put more people in financial trouble than Covid-19. An estimated 4.4m households are thought to be in “serious financial difficulties”.

  5. Immigration | A British resident who gave birth in Jamaica last April has been left stranded there after the Home Office told her that her baby cannot enter Britain as he has an “established life” on the island. The mother has lived in the UK for two decades.

In depth: ‘You’re going to find evidence of my involvement. And I know you have to publish that’

A protest against Uber in Paris in 2016. Mark MacGann faced intensifying threats from taxi drivers during his time with Uber.
A protest against Uber in Paris in 2016. Mark MacGann faced intensifying threats from taxi drivers during his time with Uber. Photograph: François Mori/AP

“No two whistleblowers are the same,” Paul Lewis said, “but Mark is quite unlike most of them.”

A lot of the time, the people who come forward to tell a story of dubious governmental or corporate behaviour are outsiders, operating far from the centres of power. MacGann, on the other hand, “had all the characteristics of a skilled networker”.

“He has a contact book gleaned over four decades in the higher echelons of government relations and public policy,” Paul said. “And he is not someone who was frequently questioning this behaviour when he was at Uber – he was complicit in the wrongdoing he was seeking to expose. That’s not unheard of, but it is unusual.”

Paul and MacGann first met in January, in a hired conference room at a hotel in the suburbs of Geneva. MacGann had two suitcases full of laptops, hard drives, iPhones and bundles of paper. He seemed nervous initially – “as is always the case at the start of these relationships” – and he had “some anxiety about how much this was going to change his life.”

What followed was an intensive initial five-day trawl through the contents of those suitcases – and, for Paul, a deepening sense of the value of the data and the complexity of the source’s position.


Here’s a brief reminder of some of the revelations so far, which range from secret lobbying, to blocking regulators’ access to vital data, to a willingness to leverage violence against drivers for political gain.

Uber has said that it “will not make excuses for past behaviour” during the period of the leak but said that it has since been transformed under new leadership. You can read the company’s full response here, and a statement here by former CEO Travis Kalanick – who said that Uber’s expansion initiatives “were led by over a hundred leaders in dozens of countries around the world and at all times under the direct oversight and with the full approval of Uber’s robust legal, policy, and compliance groups”.


“For us, the principle question is always what is the public interest in the information being shared,” Paul said. “Does it reveal wrongdoing? Is this the kind of thing the public deserves to know? We quickly drew the conclusion that this was an extraordinary opportunity to tell the inside story of the tactics that fuelled Uber’s global expansion.”

MacGann says he was motivated by his view that it was in the public interest for Uber to reckon with this history. “At the same time, he was transparent about his grievances with the company, and it became clear that working there had been a traumatic experience for him.” Last night’s story reveals that as protests (pictured above) grew, MacGann faced physical threats as a result of his role as a public face of Uber’s attempt to disrupt existing taxi businesses – and he only recently reached an out-of-court settlement with the company over his remuneration.

Crucial, too, is a point MacGann acknowledges in the story: “I should have shown more common sense and pushed harder to stop the craziness.” Paul remembers taking a walk with him on the shores of Lake Geneva. “We were having a breather from this very intense period. And unprompted, he said: ‘I realise that you’re going to find evidence of my own involvement in questionable activities. And I know you have to publish that.’”

Complicating though MacGann’s involvement was, it also helped to establish his credibility – and, as he says in the story, “there’s no statute of limitations on doing the right thing”.

The data he made available speaks for itself. “We normally see a freedom of information request that might reveal that a call took place between a minister and a lobbyist,” Paul said. “Or there’s a declaration in a transparency register. But you never get to see what is actually said in those conversations. To have data that allowed us to effectively be a fly on the wall – that was unique.”

Peter Mandelson provided ‘extremely pricey’ help reaching out to pro-Kremlin billionaires.
Peter Mandelson provided ‘extremely pricey’ help reaching out to pro-Kremlin billionaires. Composite: Guardian Design

Another vital theme to emerge from these stories, of how key Obama aides facilitated access to US ambassadors or Peter Mandelson’s “extremely pricey” help reaching out to pro-Kremlin billionaires, is how crucial relationships are to effective lobbying. “It’s as simple as – in order to penetrate power, Uber enlisted powerful people,” Paul said. “It’s fascinating that for all of the money Uber had – and it had an annual global lobbying and communications budget of £90m – it was social capital that it was using to open doors.”

Six months after Paul and MacGann’s initial meeting, the sheer scale of what was hidden in the data he shared could not be more sharply apparent – and MacGann has acknowledged that he had moments of self-doubt along the way. “What I am doing isn’t easy, and I hesitated,” he said in last night’s story.

To Paul, central to the value of what MacGann disclosed is that it sets out a different narrative of how companies such as Uber operate than the one that emerges from breathless accounts of Silicon Valley. “It’s easy for these companies to be seen through an American lens,” he said. “But actually, they’re global, and small tweaks to the algorithm by an engineer in San Francisco can have transformative effects on the lives of millions of drivers around the world.”

After that first five days, it became clear that there was too much for one news organisation to handle on its own – so the Guardian brought in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and 40 other outlets around the world. That’s not a step that any media organisation takes lightly. “But whereas we don’t have a regulatory or governmental infrastructure yet for dealing with these kinds of global corporations, these kinds of collaborations are starting to build a way to report on them.”

On Sunday night, after the first stories were published, Paul sat at his computer, scrolling through pictures of front pages from around the world, each running with its own angle on how Uber had sought to expand its reach. “The Washington Post, the Toronto Star, Le Monde, El Pais, Indian Express – it is a global story,” he said. That’s the story that Mark MacGann began the process of telling – and, whatever his past, it wouldn’t have been told without him.

What else we’ve been reading

  • Financial analysts are stunned by the cryptocurrency market’s sharp downward spiral. Sirin Kale talks to the people who put everything into crypto, showing the human devastation behind the numbers. Nimo

  • Owen Jones warns that by choosing dividing lines based on character rather than policy, Keir Starmer has left himself vulnerable to a new opponent. The victor could “reconstruct the Tories’ 2019 voter coalition, while Labour fails to win over Tory supporters and disillusions parts of its own support base,” he writes. Archie

  • Meanwhile, as the Tory candidates vie to outdo each other on tax cuts, ConservativeHome’s Paul Goodman tells party members: “One should always be suspicious of people who tell you want you want to hear.” Archie

  • Zayd Ayers Dohrn’s childhood sounds as if it was ripped from the pages of a political thriller: he grew up the son of Weather Underground revolutionaries on the run from the FBI. Four decades later, in a candid essay, Dohrn now is chronicling the lives and political activities of his parents and their militant leftwing organisation. Nimo

  • From catwalks to red carpets to magazine covers, cis men wearing “gendered” clothing such as dresses is increasingly common. Rhik Samadder decided it was time to take the skirt from high fashion to the high street, and reported back on the reaction from the public. Nimo


Football | England roared into the quarter-finals of the Euros with an 8-0 demolition of Norway. Beth Mead led the way with a hat-trick while Ellen White scored twice in a stunning performance.

Motor sport | Former Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone will be charged with fraud by false representation after an investigation by HMRC allegedly found more than £400m of undeclared assets overseas.

Olympics | A senior figure in the IOC has said that it is unlikely that Russia and Belarus will be allowed to participate in the Paris Olympics in 2024 because of the invasion of Ukraine.

The front pages

Guardian front page, 12 July 2022
Guardian front page, 12 July 2022 Photograph: Guardian

The Guardian’s Uber files coverage continues today with the whistleblower explaining his motives; it shares the front page with “Tories take fast track to replace PM”. The Times leads with “Sunak vows to cut tax as support for Truss grows”. The Financial Times has “Sunak to defend tax stance by vowing cuts once inflation tamed”. The Mail’s splash headline is “Truss: back me or it’ll be Rishi” – the paper says Sunak “still won’t commit to instant tax cuts”. Metro has as its lead “F1 Bernie ‘in £400m tax dodge’” while its front page picture is a group of people carrying a large inflatable craft down a French beach with the headline “And still the boats come …”. Sir Mo Farah talks poignantly about his true identity from many of the front pages today. “I’m not Mo Farah” says the Sun – “Olympic hero is really Hussein Abdi Kahin”. The i has “Sir Mo: I’m not who you think I am” while the Mirror says “Star’s secret ordeal – Mo: I was trafficked as a child”. And now the weather: “Britain braced for heat health emergency” says the Telegraph which shows Sajid Javid dabbing sweat from his brow. “Heatwave is ‘risk to life’” warns the Express.

Today in Focus

The source story

The Uber files: the whistleblower (part 2)

In the second part of a miniseries on Uber, former executive Mark MacGann explains his decision to speak out

Cartoon of the day | Steve Bell

Steve Bell’s cartoon.
Steve Bell’s cartoon. Illustration: Steve Bell/The Guardian

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Derbyshire Caving Club’s Ed Coghlan with a bowl found in the mine.
Derbyshire Caving Club’s Ed Coghlan with a bowl found in a preserved Chesire mine. Photograph: Paul Harris/National Trust Images

Cavers in Cheshire have found an undisturbed 200-year-old mineshaft in pristine condition. The mine was sealed by the miners around 1810, meaning that almost no oxygen got in since, turning it into something of a time capsule. Archaeologists found clay pipes, a leather shoe and a small bowl. “It is a glimpse,” said National Trust archaeologist Jamie Lund, into the environment that these miners, who were extracting cobalt, encountered.” A 3D scan of the mine has been made so that anyone can see this extraordinary discovery for themselves.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.


Archie Bland

The GuardianTramp

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