Number 10 has defended as “great” a minister who launched an online tirade against a journalist for asking questions about her role.
Equalities minister Kemi Badenoch accused a reporter of “creepy and bizarre” behaviour for asking why she had not appeared in a video promoting the Covid-19 vaccination campaign.
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Boris Johnson’s aides defended Badenoch (pictured) and said the Twitter attack on journalist Nadine White was the result of a “misunderstanding between the two parties”.
But the Prime Minister’s press secretary, Allegra Stratton, said on Monday that the minister felt she had “grounds” for her public attack on the Huffpost reporter.
Badenoch went on Twitter to complain that Huffpost UK had 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 the footage.
The minister suggested White’s actions undermined efforts to build confidence in the coronavirus 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”.
She shared screenshots of two emails sent by White to a Government press office asking why she did not participate in the cross-party video.
Badenoch said on Twitter that she had not taken part because she was participating in a vaccine trial.
Stratton said the minister had been “civil” to Ms White.
“Kemi felt that she was working very hard to improve confidence in the black community in taking the jab and she felt that questions about why she wasn’t in the video were not right when she was not in the video because she was taking part in a trial,” she said.
White is a “a great young journalist asking questions of government, she must continue to do that”, Stratton went on.
She added that Badenoch is “a great minister who is also doing her utmost to improve confidence in the vaccine amongst a community that is – right now – concerned and worried about taking it”.
Asked whether the minister would face disciplinary action over her comments and publication of private correspondence, Stratton said: “I believe that Kemi feels that she has grounds for those words.”
White had to make her Twitter profile private following Badenoch’s tweets on Friday as she received abuse and harassment on social media as well as via email and her work phone.
Huffpost editor-in-chief Jess Brammar has made a complaint to the Cabinet Office about Badenoch’s behaviour asking for an apology and for the allegations to be withdrawn.
She wrote in response to Badenoch on Twitter: “You will note that, contrary to your claim we were spreading disinformation, we have not published this story without your response.
“I totally refute the claim it is ‘creepy and bizarre’ to ask questions of a government minister, and Nadine was doing her job in asking them.”
She later added: “One of my reporters has had to make her Twitter profile private today because a *government minister* tweeted out screenshots of a completely standard request for comment on a story, and accused her of spreading disinformation. Absolutely extraordinary.
“Young, female, black journalists receive some of the worst abuse on Twitter, and to behave in this way is extremely disappointing – even before you consider that the person involved is the minister for equalities.
“We stand by Nadine for doing her job correctly, as she always does.”
The National Union of Journalists on Monday condemned the abuse faced by White as a result of Badenoch’s “petty” tweets.
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “Instead of condemning the unacceptable and uncalled for pillorying of a journalist simply doing her job, Number 10 has today dug in and defended a minister who should know better.
“Putting in questions to elected representatives is pretty standard journalistic practice and the response from Kemi Badenoch was frankly weird, completely out of order and an abuse of her privilege. As a result, Nadine has had to contend with a barrage of online and offline abuse and hostility.
“Elected representatives should be working to boost standards of public discourse, not indulging in petty outbursts that deepen hostility towards journalists and journalism.”
The NUJ’s safety survey, published in November, showed 98% of respondents believed politicians should avoid dismissing journalistic work as fake news as they have a leading role to play in maintaining high standards of public discourse.
Asked by Press Gazette on Monday if Badenoch was standing by what she said, a spokesperson for the Government’s Equality Hub, part of the Cabinet Office, said: “The Minister has been working to encourage vaccine take up and confidence amongst those disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
“She believes that to instil confidence in the vaccine it is vital to remain unified, and not undermine the message of promoting take-up amongst minority communities.
“We want every eligible person to benefit from the offer of a free vaccine, no matter their ethnicity or religious beliefs. To ensure this happens the Government is pursuing a unified approach to public health messaging, as was demonstrated by the cross-party video released last week.”
Picture: UK Parliament