Labour leadership hopeful Sir Keir Starmer has called on the Cabinet Office to investigate Number 10’s decision to brief political journalists from select titles only, excluding others.
It follows a walkout by Lobby journalists yesterday after only a handful were invited to a briefing at Downing Street within hours of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s speech on a UK-EU trade deal.
Other journalists within the Lobby, the cohort of political journalists based at Westminster, caught wind of the invite-only briefing and tried to attend as well, but were asked to leave.
The decision was said to have been made by the Prime Minister’s communications director, Lee Cain, who told reporters: “We’re welcome to brief whoever we like, whenever we like.”
In a letter addressed to Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, Starmer said Cain’s actions were “deeply disturbing” given his role as a political appointee.
“I am concerned that they have undermined the civil service’s ability to comply with its core values of integrity, objectivity and impartiality,” said the MP.
“Equally, banning sections of the media from attending important briefings about important matters of government is damaging to democracy.”
Starmer, a former lawyer, added: “The media’s access to the Prime Minister’s chief negotiator should not be determined by political favouritism.
“I would ask that you investigate urgently this matter and provide assurance that such an incident will not happen again.”
News agency PA, the Mirror and i newspapers, and Huffpost UK, Politics Home and Independent websites were all barred entry, according to reports.
The i splashed on the story this morning, while it also appeared on the front pages of the Guardian and the Times. The incident was widely reported yesterday, including by Huffpost UK and the Independent.
The i’s editor, Oly Duff, addressed the ban in a column today, writing: “Scrutiny can be uncomfortable. Yet in democracies, politicians do not get to decide to whom they are accountable.
“Downing Street’s attempt to pick and choose which journalists will be briefed by neutral, taxpayer-funded civil servants is unacceptable.”
He praised political editors Laura Kuenssberg (BBC), Robert Peston (ITV) and Beth Rigby (Sky News) as well as reporters from the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Sun, FT and Guardian for joining the walkout.
“A government is supposed to govern for all – indeed, this PM promised that he would try to ‘unite the country’,” said Duff.
“Excluding select media titles effectively cuts out swathes of the population from receiving information on important policy.”
Relations between the Lobby and Number 10 have been strained since the start of the year when the location of the two daily press briefings was changed from Parliament to 9 Downing Street, without consultation.
The move was met with “significant concerns” by the Lobby, which said it would make it harder for journalists to cover afternoon parliamentary proceedings and Government briefings, adversely affecting smaller news outlets who might have just one reporter based at Westminster.
It also warned the change of venue could lead to the Government barring entry to journalists from titles it did not favour, with reporters now forced to pass through Downing Street security.
The editor of every major national newspaper in the UK wrote to Johnson last month asking him to reconsider the change to Lobby briefings.