The Cabinet Office has rejected a complaint from HuffPost against Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch over her Twitter tirade against a journalist because she used a personal account.
Huffpost UK submitted a formal complaint about Badenoch’s posts, which called requests for comment from journalist Nadine White “creepy and bizarre”, almost a month ago.
The Cabinet Office responded this week that Badenoch (pictured) was personally responsible for what she chose to write on her personal Twitter account.
Her Twitter profile notes that she is “Conservative MP for Saffron Walden. Treasury & Equalities Minister” while screenshots she posted in her thread showed White’s enquiries to her professional email address and the Treasury press office.
Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm said: “I note that the tweets were not issued from a government Twitter account but instead from a personal Twitter account,” according to Huffpost.
“The minister is personally responsible for deciding how to act and conduct herself, and for justifying her own actions and conduct.
“As such, this is a matter on which the minister would be best placed to offer a response.”
However Badenoch’s office told White the MP “has nothing further to add beyond what is included in the letter sent earlier today from Alex Chisholm to your editor”.
Press Gazette editor-in-chief Dominic Ponsford said: “Most news organisations (Press Gazette included) expect journalists to behave well on social media, even if on private accounts. It seems that for Government ministers the rules are more relaxed.”
Huffpost UK’s own social media guidelines state: “Staff should conduct themselves professionally on social media platforms, understanding that their conduct on such platforms also reflects on HuffPost.”
Press Gazette’s social media guidelines for staff warn that readers see journalists’ personal accounts as extensions of the company’s digital platforms. Staff are urged to adopt the same levels of compliance on personal social media accounts as work ones.
Similarly one BBC journalist commented: “Does this mean that I can hurl abuse at politicians from here, on the grounds that this is not an official BBC account?”
The BBC’s social media guidelines, updated in the autumn, tell staff they must treat others “with respect and courtesy at all times” and treat their personal accounts as if they are BBC output complying with its strict editorial standards.
A sad insight into how some journalists operate…On Wednesday, I shared our positive, well-received cross-party video to increase vaccine confidence in the midst of so much disinformation. Last night we heard great news about the Novavax Vaccine which I’ve been trialling 🙂..1/8
— Kemi Badenoch (@KemiBadenoch) January 29, 2021
Huffpost editor-in-chief Jess Brammar called it “absurd to any reasonable person to suggest that the words of a minister are somehow less accountable if they are written by them on Twitter than if they appeared in a press release, or were given in an interview”.
“If any member of the public were to tweet out emails sent to their work address, accompanied by a slew of false allegations, they would expect a swift call from HR.”
She said the decision effectively gave elected ministers impunity online even though they are accountable for their actions in other areas of their lives.
“…Whitehall feels dangerously out of touch in providing such an obvious loophole,” she wrote.
“Remember next time you see a prospective candidate or councillor cancelled online for tweets they sent at university – our government ministers are allowed to say whatever they like.”
One of the principles of public life around which the ministerial code is built calls for accountability: “Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny necessary to ensure this.”
The row began after Badenoch complained on Twitter that Huffpost UK sought to “sow distrust by making up claims I refused to take part in a video campaign” after being asked an apparently straightforward question about her non-appearance in a video encouraging ethnic minorities to get the Covid-19 vaccine.
The minister suggested White’s questions undermined efforts to build confidence in the vaccine programme, saying “chasing clicks like this is irresponsible” and it was “creepy and bizarre to fixate on who didn’t participate in a video and demand they explain themselves”.
Labour shadow minister Marsha de Cordova also wrote to the Cabinet Office alleging three breaches of the ministerial code.
She said Badenoch failed to maintain high standards of behaviour, be professional and treat others with respect, and that she disclosed private information that was not in the public interest.
The first section of the code states: “Ministers of the Crown are expected to maintain high standards of behaviour and to behave in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety.”
However the Cabinet Office told Press Gazette there had been no investigation into any breach of the ministerial code and that this had previously been misreported.
Chisholm also noted in his response to Huffpost that the Prime Minister’s press secretary, Allegra Stratton, had “already provided comments on this matter”.
Brammar suggested this was a “tacit endorsement of their belief that this is not how a minister should behave” as Stratton had said Badenoch’s actions “would not be how we in No 10 deal with these things”.
“But both institutions apparently felt it was not their place to get involved,” Brammar added.
Picture: UK Parliament