Ministry of Defence press office staff told they should not “waste any time” answering questions from foreign policy website Declassified UK wrongly misinterpreted this as a blanket ban, an independent review has revealed.
Declassified accused the MoD of blacklisting them after its reporter Phil Miller was told “we no longer deal with your publication” when he asked for comment about a British soldier being investigated for protesting the war in Yemen in August.
Miller noticed the Telegraph had been sent a comment about the same story, and in fact the BBC and Daily Mirror also received lines and background briefings.
An independent review commissioned by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace after Declassified went public with its allegations has revealed failings within the press office but no formal “blacklisting” policy.
It also found that there was no direct political bias in the response to Declassified, with the failing instead a result of “institutional reflex”.
Communications professional Tom Kelly, who led the review, discovered that a military officer with limited media experience who was on loan to the Defence Communications Directorate suggested in July that Declassified should be put on a list of organisations that the department would rarely or never engage with “because it was not considered a reputable source of news”.
The officer claimed the website was “conspiratorial and frequently picked up by foreign media which is hostile to the UK” but did not provide any evidence for this or assess the reputational implications for his suggestion.
Kelly said there was no evidence that such a list exists or that this suggestion was taken seriously.
However the director of the Defence Communications Directorate subsequently said the department “should not waste any time” on Declassified because it was a hostile website and not a proper news organisation, as the report put it.
He told staff Declassified journalists should be encouraged to submit Freedom of Information requests instead.
His staff members took this to mean he had sanctioned a blanket ban on engaging with Declassified.
“The director is clear that his comment was not meant to imply that the website should be blacklisted, nor that the principle of blacklisting was in any way acceptable,” Kelly’s report said.
“Rather, he says, what he meant was that his team should not expend a disproportionate amount of time answering questions from it, given that its audience was relatively small compared to the mainstream media, and that it had a clearly hostile agenda.
“Whatever his intention, however, the rest of the directorate interpreted his comment as a direction not to engage with Declassified…”
The director pointed out that these events all happened while many staff members were working remotely because of Covid-19 and that this meant “the normal discussion of such issues that would take place in a normal working environment did not take place”.
Kelly accepted staff may have been more likely to voice concerns in a face to face environment.
Kelly noted that, if adopted as formal policy, the blanket ban would have breached both the Civil Service Code and the Communication Service’s guidance which state civil servants should not discriminate in their dealings with outside individuals and organisations.
Kelly said it was “disturbing” that no staff members had challenged the orders they thought they had been given, instead following it through without questioning its basic premise or its reputational and ethical implications for the UK’s stance on championing press freedom.
Declassified editor Mark Curtis said: “It is clear that Declassified was blacklisted, which is contrary to the way that public officials are required to deal with news organisations. The MoD should admit it and stop trying to let its most senior media official off the hook.”
Government communications departments are “highly pressurised” environments that often receive a deluge of queries, meaning they must make judgment calls on priorities after which Freedom of Information requests can act as a “fallback process”, Kelly said.
“This does not, however, excuse a failure to provide outlets with the basic level of information any Government department should provide,” his report went on.
MoD chief operating officer Mike Baker reiterated the department’s previous apology to Declassified and said he would ensure Kelly’s recommendations are implemented “at pace”.
These include issuing copies of the Civil Service Code and the Government Communication Service Propriety Guidance to all staff members and making adherence a standard part of their performance reviews, and introducing regular reviews of the way they have responded to media enquiries.
Picture: PA Wire/Tim Ireland