The Government has insisted it is “committed” to media freedom after political journalists staged a mass walkout over Number 10’s attempt to exclude some news titles from a press briefing.
Addressing the matter in Parliament today, Conservative MPs dubbed Lobby journalists’ Downing Street briefing boycott yesterday a “storm in a Westminster bubble” and a “mass outbreak of snowflakery”.
Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith (pictured) defended the Government’s actions in responding to an urgent question.
She repeatedly described what happened as “standard lobby procedures supplemented by an additional specialist briefing”, adding: “There is nothing more sinister than that here.”
“This Government is committed to being open in its dealing with the press and to the principles of media freedom and the events of yesterday were a very good example of this,” she said.
The Government briefs political journalists twice a day, once in the morning, once in the afternoon, which all Lobby members can attend.
About seven senior political editors were invited to a separate early afternoon briefing with a special adviser yesterday about how the Government plans to negotiate a trade deal with the European Union.
Other Lobby journalists got wind of the briefing and tried to attend as well, but were separated from the others and told they could not enter by Number 10 communications director Lee Cain.
All journalists present then staged a walkout in protest, with NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet saying they were “right to act in solidarity”.
Smith described how Boris Johnson took “extensive” questions from journalists following his speech setting out his vision for a trade deal with the EU at a press conference in Greenwich, London, yesterday morning.
She said all journalists were then able to take part in a subsequent on the record briefing with Johnson’s official spokesperson.
“It is entirely standard practice for the Government to host additional technical, specialist briefings as was the case yesterday,” Smith said.
“This particular briefing, which the media has reported on, was an additional smaller meeting due to be held by a special adviser in order to improve the understanding of the Government’s negotiating aims for the future relationship [with the EU].”
Smith later added that the Conservatives “strongly support the free press” and claimed Johnson took part in 120 media engagements over the general election campaign period at the end of last year.
A number of Conservative MPs played down the incident, with David Simmonds MP for Ruislip saying it “very much has the flavour of a storm in a Westminster bubble”.
Former BBC, Channel 4 News and Times journalist Damian Green acknowledged there “clearly do need to be better arrangements for lobby briefings than were taking place yesterday”.
But he went on: “…what we’re seeing here is some fake outrage and a mass outbreak of snowflakery.”
And Sir Peter Bottomley, Father of the House, drew the comparison of former Labour PR chief Alistair Campbell, who has been described as a “sultan of spin” and one of the UK’s first political “spin doctors”.
Sir Peter said: “I don’t think anything has happened so far that matches what Alistair Campbell did in trying to get political editors sacked and saying they wouldn’t co-operate at all.
“I do believe it would be sensible for the Government to consider having a talk to the senior political editors who did walk out and see if there’s a way of getting over this problem and resolving it.”
Others from Labour and the Scottish National Party echoed his criticism in Parliament, with the latter party sharing concerns that no Scottish correspondents were invited to the briefing.
‘A black day for press freedom’
Shadow Culture Secretary Tracy Brabin said: “The Government’s behaviour in these matters threatens the civil service core values of impartiality and objectivity.
“It also brings into question the integrity of future Government media briefings and the conduct of its special advisers and damages a free and vibrant press which is central to this parliamentary democracy.”
SNP MP Pete Wishart described Smith’s justifications as “woeful and desperate”, adding: “Yesterday was a black day for press freedom and no amount of sleek self-justifying nonsense from [Smith] is going to get her off the Trumpian hook.
“The next thing the Prime Minister will be talking about fake news and banning broadcasters – oh wait, he already has. Just how sinister can it get?
“Names of journalists read out and groups assembled on either side of a rug before it’s announced who would have access and who would be excluded.”
And former SNP culture spokesperson Brendan O’Hara described the events as “deliberately sinister, knowingly provocative” and “out of President Trump’s playbook for bullies”.
But Smith criticised the SNP and Labour’s record of media freedom in return, saying Labour “needs to look in the mirror”.
She referenced a “shadow government that wishes to regulate and introduce a soviet-style licensing of newspapers”.
she added: “The leader and shadow chancellor take money from media organisations like Press TV which are owned by foreign hostile governments, a BBC editor [Laura Kuenssberg] under that culture had to have protection at their party conference, and the shadow chancellor encourages direct action against journalists who don’t write what he likes.”
She later added that former SNP leader Alex Salmond “used to routinely exclude journalists from his briefings”.
Picture: Parliament TV