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Downing Street has banned me from asking questions. Why?

I’ve been a lobby journalist for decades – but now I've been shut out by No. 10. What are Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings so afraid of?

James Cusick
James Cusick
20 May 2020
Boris Johnson takes questions from journalists at a press briefing on 11 May.
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PA Images

Dear Prime Minister 

It’s been some time, but I wonder if you remember the words of David Cameron, shortly before the 2010 general election, when he talked of “sunlight being the best disinfectant.” He promised, should he get the keys to Number 10, to lead a government where honesty and openness would have lead roles. 

For brevity’s sake, let’s leave aside whether Mr Cameron fulfilled his promise. Instead, let me concentrate on your own administration. 

Over the past two months, your government has held daily briefings on the Covid-19 emergency from Downing Street. They have the appearance, if not the substance, of openness. The media have been allowed to ask questions. Recently the public has joined this Q&A exercise. 

Prime Minister, I’ve been a member of the parliamentary press lobby for more years than I care to admit. I’ve worked as a political journalist for the BBC, for the Sunday Times, the Independent and, most recently, for openDemocracy. 

I’ve regularly attended Downing Street press briefings during the premierships of John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May and now your own. I hold a parliamentary lobby pass, which is only provided after a strict vetting process. 

For decades, that pass is all I’ve needed to attend a lobby gathering and ask whatever question I thought relevant to any emerging story. Until now.

That right, or privilege – you can choose what to call it – has just been ended by you, or perhaps by your advisor Dominic Cummings. And I want to know why. 

As a member of the parliamentary lobby, I fully expected to be one of the journalists who would, eventually, be given a slot to ask a question about the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

My recent reporting for openDemocracy has exposed serious flaws in the COVID-19 testing regime. It has voiced concerns among doctors for the safety of critically ill children; and revealed hospital logs which support their fears. And it has highlighted the costly negligence battles the government is preparing to fight over NHS worker deaths. 

These stories, and many others produced by openDemocracy in the last few months, have been picked up by all the major news outlets – from the front page of the Telegraph to the BBC, Guardian and Daily Mail.

So why, when I sought to ask a question in the lobby briefing, was I told that openDemocracy has been banned from asking any questions?

This isn’t rumour, or conjecture. An adviser in 10 Downing Street directly told the chair of the lobby, the Daily Mirror’s Pippa Crerar – who arranges the list of media organisations appearing at the daily briefings – that openDemocracy would not be allowed to ask any questions.

James Cusick Pippa Crerar
Pippa Crerar, chair of the parliamentary press gallery, informs our reporter James Cusick of the decision to bar openDemocracy. | openDemocracy, all rights reserved.

Prime Minister, it appears Mr Cameron’s “sunlight” does not shine inside your Number 10. 

There’s a long list of media outlets that have been permitted to quiz you and your ministers at these briefings. Some are entertainment sites like LADbible. Some have well-defined political leanings (Left Foot Forward). Out of all of them, why is it openDemocracy that must be kept away from any televised questioning? What makes us stand out? 

What makes openDemocracy too dangerous for Number 10 to risk even one question being granted?

Ms Crerar argued my case and repeatedly explained to one of your advisers that I was a member of the lobby.  The direct refusal stood. She was eventually told by a Number 10 official that openDemocracy is a “campaigning” organisation and that no question would be allowed. 

Public interest journalism

As the figurehead of the Brexit Leave campaign, I’m sure you know all about campaigning. But my colleagues and I see this issue somewhat differently. 

Perhaps taking our cue from Mr Cameron’s comments on transparency and openness, openDemocracy has, among other things, investigated where and how the Brexit campaigns were funded. This work prompted pro-transparency law change, criminal and regulatory investigations and record fines issued for multiple breaches of the law. 

As a respected media organisation – nominated for multiple journalism prizes – we focus on a range of public interest issues, many nothing to do with Brexit. We’ve asked why your former parliamentary colleague, George Osborne, opted to “sell” the editorial pages of the newspaper he edits. You know it well – the Evening Standard – because it backed your campaigns to become London mayor and then Tory party leader. 

Equally, you know its proprietor, Evgeny Lebedev, as a close friend. openDemocracy, as you will no doubt be aware, broke the story about your attendance at one of Mr Lebedev’s racy gatherings at his villa in Italy. 

It’s also openDemocracy that has in recent weeks called on your government to release details of the massive COVID data deal with major US tech firms. Why? Because we believe the public has a right to know who the government is sharing our sensitive personal health information with – and who stands to profit.

But I’m digressing. openDemocracy is not alone in being what you choose to call a “campaigning” organisation. In fact, the focus of much of our output is similar in spirit to a newspaper you will be very familiar with: the Daily Telegraph. 

Prime Minister, if Number 10 has banned openDemocracy for its “campaigning” output, I fear you may have to adopt a similar punishment for your party’s in-house journal. Let me explain. 

A couple of years after Mr Cameron’s sunlight speech, a Telegraph editorial offered insight into two subjects that openDemocracy cares very much about: transparency and ‘dark money’.

The Telegraph wrote: “There is nothing wrong with business leaders lobbying government; nor is there anything wrong with people making donations to political parties. Both are intrinsic parts of the democratic process – but both must be transparent. “

So you see, Prime Minister, whilst openDemocracy agrees with the Telegraph on very few issues, we both agree on the need for transparency. But while the Telegraph may dutifully choose where it wants to throw sunlight, I don’t – and neither does openDemocracy. 

If the price of this principled behaviour is to be banned from your daily briefings, we will take that as a mark of respect. 

On the other hand, now that I’ve reminded you of Mr Cameron’s sunlight and the Telegraph’s stance on transparency… perhaps you’ll see things differently. 

Yours not exactly faithfully, but nevertheless respectfully,

James Cusick. 

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