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November 7, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 8:33am

UK arms fair organisers barred journalist over fears of negative coverage, emails reveal

By Charlotte Tobitt

A journalist was barred from a major UK arms fair because organisers believed he would “not write anything positive” about the event, according to emails he uncovered through a subject access request.

Middle East Eye reporter Ian Cobain was refused access to the Defence and Security Equipment International event at the Excel centre in London in September.

Private Eye journalist Solomon Hughies was also denied media accreditation.

They were told by organisers that the event had reached its capacity for the media with priority being given to specialist correspondents, despite the fact they had both applied for access in advance.

The event’s organiser Clarion Events told Press Gazette today that Middle East Eye was “not considered a priority publication”.

By submitting a request for data about him held by Clarion and PR firm CMS Strategic, Cobain (pictured) uncovered emails that appear to show altogether different reasons for his exclusion.

The emails, seen by Press Gazette, show that a member of the DSEI media accreditation team asked the event’s security team, CMS and a second PR firm – Luther Pendragon – for advice on how to respond to Cobain’s application.

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Sharing a link to Cobain’s author page on Middle East Eye, they wrote: “Ian Cobain from Middle East Eye has registered for media accreditation. He didn’t attend DSEI in 2017 and his work looks somewhat contentious, with lots about Yemen, torture, ‘arms sales’ references etc.

“I suspect he will not write anything positive about DSEI. What do you think?”

A Luther employee responded: “I think just hold off for now and see if he chases.”

A DSEI security team member added: “Found some articles that he has posted on his Twitter page that isn’t in favour of the arms trade or DSEI.”

The email linked to a Twitter post in which Cobain shared an Independent article headlined: “British government invites Saudi Arabia to world’s largest arms fair despite UK court ruling that sales to the country are unlawful.”

It also pointed to a Middle East Eye comment article headlined: “See no evil: how the UK government tries not to know that British bombs are killing kids in Yemen.”

The security staff’s email continued: “On this basis, I think he shouldn’t be approved, but you can hold off on sending him any further communications for now.”

Cobain did not hear anything about his application until he chased it almost three weeks later, he said. He was initially told that security had requested further information from him, but said he never received any such email.

He said an email was then forwarded on to him, which said: “After reviewing your application we are unable to establish that you are a journalist/editor/production team member in a relevant field.”

After responding with links to his work and Wikipedia page, and informing organisers he has reported on six wars, Cobain was told there had been a “very large number of applications to attend this year’s DSEI and we are unable to accredit everyone”.

Cobain, formerly chief reporter and home editor at the Times and an investigative journalist for the Guardian, told Press Gazette he is still “annoyed” by what happened.

“I made the point in an email to Luther Pendragon that I have worked in Putin’s Russia, Saudi Arabia, Ba’athist Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and I have never before been barred from an event to which other journalists have been admitted,” he said.

“I hope they think twice in future about refusing journalists access to events. Why would they be worried about a bit of non-positive coverage?

“They should be able to take it on the chin. They are arms dealers, after all.”

Cobain said the uncovered emails show a statement sent to Press Gazette in September, when we covered his barring from the arms fair, was “misleading” because it “very strongly implied” he was not allowed entry because he was not a defence specialist.

“It’s quite clear that wasn’t the reason at all,” he said. “They were worried I wouldn’t report on it in a positive way.”

A Clarion spokesperson said today: “DSEI is a trade exhibition and as such the target media were UK and global defence trade publications, pan-international media, and mainstream UK outlets.

“Middle East Eye was not considered a priority publication.

“Over 500 journalists were hosted, and subsequently reported, at the event – including all major UK media outlets.”

The spokesperson sent Press Gazette a list of more than 130 media organisations who attended the event.

Press Gazette has yet to receive a response to requests for comment sent to CMS and Luther Pendragon, although a CMS spokesperson said Clarion’s response was coordinated with them.

Cobain had also requested communications relating to his accreditation request between Clarion and either the Ministry of Defence or the Department for International Trade, because of their support for the arms fair. He was told no such correspondence took place.

The Paul Foot Award and Amnesty International media award winner has now submitted a further subject access request to Luther Pendragon, which Cobain called “grotesquely hypocritical” because of its sponsorship of the Society of Editors’ press awards this year.

“Behind the scenes they are working to curtail media freedom,” he said. “It’s quite extraordinary.”

Private Eye journalist Hughes, who has attended the biennial event three times, told Press Gazette he has now submitted his own subject access request to find out “why they really excluded me”.

“Claiming the vast halls, which can fit tanks and fighter jets, couldn’t squeeze in a couple more journalists is a pitiful excuse,” he said.

“DSEI did exclude me way back in 2001, but they were more honest then – they said they did not want a Private Eye journalist inside their arms fair because we were not a ‘legitimate journal’ and were ‘detrimental’ to the arms trade.

“They got embarrassed when these excuses were made public and let me in for the next few years.

“Now they’ve excluded me again, I suspect I will find that, as with Ian, they didn’t want anyone  else who was even slightly critical of the arms trade inside.”

The National Union of Journalists had written to DSEI asking it to reconsider but was sent the same earlier statement given to Press Gazette.

NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: “It is quite wrong for organisations to block journalists from their events because they fear what the reporter might report.

“Not only did the organisers conspire to block entry in order to fudge journalistic scrutiny, they went on to misrepresent their reasons for doing so.

“The UK Government are currently engaged in a global campaign to promote media freedom. It is incumbent on them to ensure fair and transparent processes are in place for journalistic accreditation and guarantee fair access to events they support and endorse.”

Index on Censorship said today it was “alarmed” to hear the true “outrageous grounds” reasons for Cobain’s exclusion.

Policy research and advocacy officer Jessica Ni Mhainin said: “The DSEI’s decision shows complete contempt for press freedom, and freedom of expression more broadly.

“Journalists must be free to investigate and report on such newsworthy events without interference. Their role in our democracy is to hold power to account.”

Index on Censorship issued an alert to the Council of Europe in September on the grounds the incident could have a chilling effect on press freedom, but has not yet received a UK Government response.

Picture: Phil Coburn

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