openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Number 10 are acting like nightclub doormen in their battle with journalists

Team Johnson's exclusion of journalists means we must all – including the Labour Party – step up to defend a free press.

Tom Hinchcliffe
7 February 2020, 1.44pm
Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, special advisors to the Prime Minister, pictured December 2019
Adrian Dennis/PA Images

On Monday, Westminster journalists staged a collective walkout of a Downing Street press briefing on trade deals by Johnson’s EU negotiator David Frost. Journalists perceived as less likely to toe the government line and ask trickier questions, including those from the Mirror, the Independent and PoliticsHome, had been separated from the rest of the group and asked to leave by the Prime Minister’s special advisers. The attempted crack down backfired when the entire group, even those asked to stay, walked out in disgust.

It appears that Johnson’s special advisers Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain have decided to start running No 10 press briefings like nightclub doormen – “not tonight, lads”.

But these stunts have consequences for the credibility of our democracy. A majority government unable to be held to account by political journalists (known as the Westminster lobby) will be allowed to go about its business largely unchallenged outside the House of Commons chamber.

People outside the Westminster bubble don't have time to watch hours of BBC Parliament coverage – and who could blame them, with its archaic, hard to understand procedures.

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People rely on the news to condense the day’s goings on in Westminster into a consumable package. If the government refuses to be part of this then that creates gaps in the facts and goes some way to deliberately obstructing the truth.

The Westminster lobby, in its entirety, must be allowed access to government press briefings as much an opposition must be allowed access to the House of Commons chamber.

Those in favour of the government’s actions would have you believe that Parliament is simply a contest between right and wrong at the despatch box. In reality, Parliament is a collection of MPs, peers, select committees, their staff, and journalists, all of whom have a vital part to play in what gets done in the corridors of power.

Those who constantly attack the free press, from both sides of the political spectrum, don’t want to see the back of all journalists, of course. This is about bias and encouraging those who are seen to present a favourable view of the government, as opposed to those who may disturb the narrative.

Labour’s role

Number 10’s ability to handle Westminster hacks is clearly wearing thin, as it looks to exclude those who dare to challenge its current occupants. If this farce continues, Labour needs to take this opportunity to champion the free press, not shun it. Labour’s Tracy Brabin made a good start, raising an urgent question on Tuesday where she pointed out that if special advisers had asked civil servants to “selectively brief… journalists according to party political criteria” that would breach the codes of practice for both civil servants and special advisers, adding that the move “threatens the civil service’s core values of impartiality and objectivity”, “brings into question the integrity of future Government media briefings and the conduct of their special advisers”, and “damages a free and vibrant press, which is central to this parliamentary democracy.”

Labour must now ensure it goes further and sets an example of a party that unequivocally supports the free press, regardless of their political leanings. It must continue to reject publicly (as Jeremy Corbyn did during the election campaign) the booing and jeering that some journalists encountered during press conferences.

The stakes are high. As Brabin said on Tuesday, “this was not an isolated incident: the Huawei briefing last week was exactly the same”. She told parliament, that when the prime minister’s special advisor and director of communications was challenged on the exclusion, he replied “We’re welcome to brief whoever we like, whenever we like”.

The strategy is straight out of Donald Trump’s playbook, and aims to cultivate the Tories’ supposedly ‘anti-establishment’ image whilst simultaneously avoiding accountability. It’s a strategy that was on show during December’s General Election, most notably with Boris Johnson’s consistent refusal to go on-the-record with the BBC’s Andrew Neil. And again this week, with Johnson’s refusal to take questions after sacking the President of the next UN Climate Summit, Claire Perry O’Neill,

Former No 10 Director of Communications Craig Oliver’s suggestion that this is merely “navel gazing” from a self-obsessed press pack is nonsense. Most journalists are in the job to get to the bottom of a story and to report it in its fullest, truest, form.

Former Tory Cabinet Minister Damian Green went on to call the coverage of the walkout an “outbreak of snowflakery”. It’s a claim that stinks of hypocrisy from the same people who are not willing to take tough questions themselves.

Parliament is far from perfect and journalists do have to occasionally get their hands dirty, taking MPs or their staff for lunch or a nice coffee in order to extract some useful information for whatever story they’re working on. But, much like the majority of MPs, they are in it for the right reasons - to present stories and news to their audiences with the full facts available for proper scrutiny.

As PoliticsHome Editor Kevin Schofield put it in The House magazine - “we are a simple bunch who are interested in one thing: good stories”.

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