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March 20, 2023

Guardian, Mirror and Independent exclusion from Braverman Rwanda trip ‘chilling’

The Home Office said it is not always possible to invite all media outlets on every trip.

By Charlotte Tobitt

Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner has condemned a “chilling” pattern of behaviour from the Government after her newspaper was excluded from Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s trip to Rwanda.

The Mirror’s editor-in-chief Alison Phillips similarly warned of “really damaging” consequences from the way press places were handled on the visit.

The Guardian, Mirror, i and The Independent are all believed to have been excluded from Braverman’s trip to the Rwandan capital Kigali over the weekend. The offiial visit was used to reaffirm the Goverment’s commitment to its migrant policy and view facilities being prepared for asylum seekers who will be deported from Britain to the African country from this summer.

Press Gazette understands a crew of Africa-based BBC journalists did manage to report on the Rwanda visit but the broadcaster had not been initially invited and their journalists did not travel with the Home Secretary like the UK-based teams who went. They negotiated accreditation and access with the Home Office and Rwandan authorities.

Sun political correspondent Jack Elsom, Express senior political correspondent Steph Spyro, Times home affairs editor Matt Dathan, Telegraph home affairs editor Charles Hymas, Daily Mail home affairs editor David Barrett, GB News home and security editor Mark White and PA chief reporter Josh Payne and photographer Stefan Rousseau are among the journalists who attended the trip.

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The exclusion came less than a year after journalists from The Guardian, Financial Times and Mirror were allegedly blocked from joining then-Home Secretary Priti Patel’s trip to Rwanda to sign the original asylum deal.

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Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner wrote to Home Office Permanent Secretary Sir Matthew Rycroft on Friday “to express deep concern” about the latest exclusion of her journalists. She said Guardian editors had written to the Home Office’s head of news about it on Thursday but not received a reply.

She wrote: “A single instance of the government excluding journalists from newspapers and broadcasters would be chilling enough, but this is not a one off. Rather, it is becoming a pattern of behaviour whereby this government excludes journalists and selectively chooses reporters from sympathetic papers to cover ministerial trips and visits.” She referenced last year’s exclusion, saying that also took place “with no reason or explanation”.

Viner quoted guidelines for the Government Communications Service (GCS) that say dealings with journalists should “be objective and explanatory, not biased or polemical” and “should not be – or liable to be – misrepresented as being party political”. The guidelines also state that to “work effectively, media officers must establish their impartiality and neutrality with the news media, and ensure that they deal with all news media evenhandedly”.

Viner said: “The exclusion of journalists from this latest trip appears to be a clear contravention of these guidelines”.

“Given that this is the second time the Home Office has deliberately excluded major news organisations from a publicly-funded government visit, I would welcome your urgent explanation as Permanent Secretary as to how this has happened and which civil servants and press officers in your department were involved in devising the visit,” she continued. “I would also welcome a written commitment that your press office will re-commit to dealing with all UK media organisations within the spirit and letter of the GCS guidelines.”

Mirror editor-in-chief Alison Phillips has also written to the Home Office. She said in a statement: “Media scrutiny and healthy debate are essential tenets of democracy, and to handpick only a few sympathetic outlets in order to guarantee positive coverage means keeping millions of people – and a significant proportion of the voting public – in the dark.

“Whatever people’s personal political leanings are, they should never be excluded from accessing basic information about the actions of their Government.”

Phillips told LBC’s Sangita Myska on Saturday that such decisions about access to the press could mean “long-term consequences for the country [that are] really damaging”.

She pointed out that the UK is already “slipping down” the World Press Freedom Indexdropping from 35th place in 2020 to 24th in 202 (although the methodology has changed) and said: “On behalf of the people we have to fight to make sure that good information is getting through to the public.”

Phillips told Myska she had written to the Home Office “to say this is absolutely outrageous and to hope that there will be some thought on this in the future”.

“For me this isn’t about us,” Phillips said. “It isn’t about the newspapers and the news websites. It’s about the public. It’s about the general public and what it means to live in a well-functioning democracy. And in a well-functioning democracy there’s all the different bits aren’t there – you’ve got the people that are making the law, you’ve got the people that are enforcing the law and the people who are there just to check that everyone’s doing their jobs properly and that’s our role and we do that on behalf of the people.

“So the big mistake I think Suella Braverman’s making here is that she has cut out millions of people who watch the BBC, who read the Guardian, millions of people who read the Mirror every single day, who are actually really interested [in the Rwanda policy].”

She added: “We the people have a right to know how that money is being spent and what is being done in our name because this Rwanda policy is being done in the name of the British people and really the journalists, we’re just here to help. We’re just here to help the British public get the best information so that they know what the Government is doing in their name so when we next go to the ballot box people have all the information they need to make the right decisions.”

Phillips suggested that journalists from all outlets should show solidarity, similar to the incident in February 2020 when Downing Street attempted to separate Lobby journalists and only brief some of them, but instead they all walked out. Phillips said she would be “equally appalled” if there was a Labour government attempting a similar move: “I do think as journalists we need to stand in solidarity… There are more important things than party politics. There are more important things than this one bit of government policy.”

GB News editorial director Mick Booker responded on Saturday to criticism of the broadcaster being among the journalists to travel with Braverman and interview her in Rwanda.

“The snobby reaction to GB News going to Rwanda with the Home Secretary tells me certain people think of us and our viewers as a bovine herd that can’t be trusted to make their minds up about issues for themselves – it’s times like this that prove the need for GB News to exist.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “As always with ministerial visits, opportunities for media attendance will vary and is decided with consideration of capacity.

“A range of outlets are covering the trip, including a news wire and different broadcasters. It is not always possible to invite all outlets to all media opportunities.”

Index on Censorship submitted a Council of Europe alert about the exclusions, with its editor at large Martin Bright saying: “We are concerned to hear that journalists from organisations judged to be critical of the government’s immigration policy have not been invited to accompany the Home Secretary on her trip to Rwanda.

“Democracy depends on an open and transparent relationship between government and the media, where all journalists are able to scrutinise the government. Index on Censorship believes that access to Government ministers, both domestically and as part of international visits, should not be treated as a reward for favourable coverage.”

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