UK govt steps up media rebuttal strategy with lengthy blog posts versus Sunday Times and FT

UK govt steps up media rebuttal strategy with lengthy blog posts versus Sunday Times and FT

The Government published two lengthy blog posts yesterday hitting back against Sunday Times and Financial Times articles about its handling of the coronavirus crisis – but both newspapers stand by their reporting.

The Department of Health’s 2,127-word rebuttal against a Sunday Times Insight article outlining how Britain “sleepwalked into a disaster” was the first post on its blog since November 2018, and the first to respond to a specific news story since June 2016.

Meanwhile the Cabinet Office published 2,903 words in a post rebuffing the FT’s exposé of the “muddled thinking” in a procurement programme that has left Britain below its target for the number of ventilators (pictured) thought to be needed by this stage in the pandemic.

The FT stands by its reporting, which the blog said “includes multiple inaccurate and misleading claims about the UK’s work to procure and manufacture ventilators in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency”.

The Cabinet Office response unusually focused as much on a Twitter thread by FT public policy editor Peter Foster, one of the article’s authors. It claimed his posts contained “further inaccurate claims and assertions”.

The Sunday Times article quoted a Whitehall source claiming the Government “missed the boat” on testing and personal protective equipment as the pandemic developed.

It also accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of missing five Cobra meetings on the crisis and said the Government “just watched” as the death toll rose in Wuhan, China.

In a statement published at the top of the Department of Health blog, before it begins to list rebuttals to specific points in the article, a Government spokesperson said: “This article contains a series of falsehoods and errors and actively misrepresents the enormous amount of work which was going on in government at the earliest stages of the Coronavirus outbreak.

“This is an unprecedented global pandemic and we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it, guided at all times by the best scientific advice.”

In response, a Sunday Times spokesperson said: “We stand by our journalism and we are working on our response to the government’s rebuttal.”

The Department of Health posted on its blog for the first time in almost a year and a half last month, saying it had “reactivated” the page to post content “in response to media stories on coronavirus, which will be relevant to journalists and the general public”.

The blog says its purpose is to publish a “review of our leading media stories, rebuttal of inaccurate comment, and updates about our campaigns and stories”.

The Department of Health’s last blog post in response to a specific story was in June 2016 over a Health Service Journal story about pressure being put on NHS finance directors to meet “fundamentally unsustainable” targets, although this only came to three paragraphs in total.

A number of Government departments have used blog posts to issue rebuttals to news stories in the past, although rarely in such detail and perhaps never before to a specific journalist’s Twitter thread.

One of the most active rebuttal blogs from a Government department is that of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which has published its own responses to news stories and opinion pieces from the likes of Sky News, Mail on Sunday and the Observer since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Picture: Cabinet Office/PA Wire



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