Update 25 September:
A Ministry of Defence press officer has pledged to treat all media outlets, including Declassified UK, “with fairness and impartiality”.
The Government has also responded to a Council of Europe media freedom alert filed over the issue.
As well as repeating its pledge for an independent review, it said: “The United Kingdom is a strong supporter of the Council of Europe’s extensive work on media freedom, from its comprehensive standards and legal guidelines to its important early-warning mechanism: the Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists. We take seriously and consider closely every media alert issued in relation to the UK.
“In this instance, the Ministry of Defence was wrong not to provide a comment to Mr Miller of Declassified UK on the story about which he was enquiring.”
Editor Mark Curtis said: “The Defence Secretary has obviously reprimanded MoD media officials for a wrong policy of refusing to engage with us. This is a very welcome step.
“Critical, independent journalism on UK government policies is more important than ever. We will continue investigating the deplorable UK role in the Yemen war and other policies that need the scrutiny that traditional media organisations are not providing.”
Original story 22 September:
The Ministry of Defence has apologised after its press office refused to engage with journalists from a UK foreign policy website, leading to accusations of “blacklisting”.
Journalists at Declassified UK protested after being told by a Ministry of Defence press officer last month that “we no longer deal with your publication”.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace (pictured) told MPs on Monday he had commissioned an independent review into the claims.
Editor Mark Curtis has said he believed the ban was likely in response to critical coverage of UK policy on his website, which launched last year.
He received an apology from the MoD’s chief operating officer Mike Baker on Tuesday morning saying that the “Directorate of Defence Communications was wrong not to provide a comment to Mr Miller of Declassified Media Limited on the story about which he was enquiring”.
“We apologise for this,” he added.
The apology came less than 24 hours after Wallace gave a statement in the House of Commons saying he was treating the allegations with the “utmost seriousness” and that he wants his department to “treat outlets with fairness and impartiality”.
The National Union of Journalists had urged Wallace to intervene and “ensure that there is no banned list within the ministry”.
“Managing information is challenging, particularly where hostile states use disinformation to subvert our security interests and our policymaking,” Wallace said.
“As the House will be aware, all Government media and communication professionals must abide by the Government Communication Service’s propriety guidance and the civil service code. The Ministry of Defence is no different.
“However, I have been deeply concerned that those standards are alleged not always to have been met in the department.”
The review will be led by Tom Kelly, a former Government communications professional who served as Tony Blair’s official spokesman between 2001 and 2007, who was given the brief to establish what underlies the allegations.
Wallace also said he was writing to communications professionals at the MoD and other defence authorities to emphasise his expectations of impartiality.
Curtis said: “We very much welcome the MoD’s apology and commitment to a review.
“Declassified UK has quickly become the foremost media organisation revealing the UK’s real role in the world, in contrast to an increasingly sycophantic national press.
“A vibrant democracy demands that public officials cooperate with journalists acting in the public interest.”
Curtis did point out that the MoD’s apology stopped short of admitting there had been any policy to “blacklist” his publication as it referred only to “allegations”.
Law firm Leigh Day wrote to the MoD earlier this month arguing the decision to stop responding to the journalists’ enquiries could be a breach of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
They also claimed it was in breach of the Civil Service Code and the Government Communication Service Propriety Guidance which say different organisations must be treated in an even-handed and non-discriminatory way.
Journalist Phil Miller’s original enquiry to the MoD had been in relation to a story about a British soldier being investigated for protesting the war in Yemen.
According to the website’s account of events, the press officer involved told Miller that he “did not know too much about Declassified” and later asked: “What sort of angle are you taking about the war in Yemen?”
He then told Miller he was “not going to be able to send you anything today” and advised him to send a Freedom of Information request instead, but the press office gave a comment to the Telegraph for the same story.
After being told the press office would no longer “deal with” Declassified, Miller was told: “I was wrong to promise you that we’d give you a line this morning. Sorry for misleading you but I wasn’t aware until later in the morning”.
Picture: UK Parliament