Journalists from the Guardian, Financial Times and Mirror were allegedly blocked from joining Home Secretary Priti Patel’s trip to Rwanda this month.
Patel travelled to the Rwandan capital of Kigali to sign a deal meaning asylum seekers to the UK deemed to have arrived illegally will be taken to the African country.
But journalists from several national newspapers were allegedly excluded from the trip and, the titles claim, not given sufficient detailed briefing on the policy.
The Guardian accused the Home Office of trying to “avoid public scrutiny” and suggested there was a pattern of government departments blocking individual journalists – including its home affairs editor Rajeev Syal.
Syal, who has allegedly also been excluded from previous briefing events, was formerly Whitehall correspondent and has extensively reported on bullying allegations against Patel (which she denies).
A Home Office source said all home affairs correspondents were invited to all their background briefings and Syal had been given one-to-one briefings, including one on Ukraine this month.
A Guardian spokesperson said: “Despite repeated requests to attend, Home Office delays prevented Guardian reporter Rajeev Syal from attending the trip to Rwanda, seemingly to avoid public scrutiny.
“We are concerned that Home Office officials are deliberately excluding specific journalists from key briefings and engagements. This is not the first time that officials have tried to place limits on how the press reports on the operation of this government, which sends a worrying signal about the state of press freedom in the UK.”
The Home Office source argued in response that there was plenty of opportunity for public scrutiny around the policy, including press conferences with both Patel and Boris Johnson and a statement to the House of Commons as well as background briefings.
A member of the Guardian’s politics team was initially invited on the trip. They were unable to join due to illness and, when the place was offered to another politics journalist, they suggested to the Home Office that Syal ought to go.
Others on the trip with the same specialism included Times home affairs editor Matt Dathan and Daily Mail home affairs correspondent David Barrett.
Press Gazette understands Syal repeatedly called and emailed asking for permission to go on the trip but waited for an answer until it was too late for him to undergo the necessary Covid-19 checks.
A Financial Times spokesperson said: “On this occasion our journalists were excluded from the press trip and received minimal briefing. It is clearly not good practice to exclude some media from government briefings simply because they are willing to ask difficult questions.”
Press Gazette understands no Mirror journalists were offered a place and, when the politics team queried it with the Home Office, they were told not every title can always be accommodated.
A Home Office spokesperson told Press Gazette: “The Home Office fully adheres to the Government Communication Service Propriety Guidance when dealing with members of the media.”
Press Gazette also understands the press conference led by Patel and Rwanda Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta was broadcast live and journalists back in the UK were given access to a livestream which meant the Guardian and Mirror were both able to ask questions. About 103 journalists accessed that Q&A as a result.
Journalists were also provided with a press notice and multiple factsheets and invited to background briefings, including one that was an hour long.
In 2020 political journalists including the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg and ITV’s Robert Peston staged a walkout after Downing Street communications staff attempted to brief some journalists but not others. Those excluded by former Mirror and Sun journalist Lee Cain included journalists from PA, the Mirror, the i, Huffpost UK, Politics Home and The Independent.
In 2019 the left-leaning Mirror was the only major newspaper to be excluded from the Conservative Party’s election campaign battle bus.
Picture: PA Wire/Flora Thompson