The Society of Editors has written to Number 10 to raise concerns the Government “appears to be deciding when it wishes to engage with a free media”.
The letter follows a statement by Downing Street on Saturday in response to further claims in the Mirror and Guardian newspapers about special adviser Dominic Cummings’ movements during lockdown.
The papers broke the news on Friday that Cummings, the Prime Minister’s closest aide, had journeyed 260 miles from London to Durham with his family in March, while his wife had suspected Covid-19 symptoms.
This was despite severe restrictions on movement being in place across the UK as it battled to control the outbreak of coronavirus.
Downing Street said in a statement: “Yesterday the Mirror and Guardian wrote inaccurate stories about Mr Cummings.
“Today they are writing more inaccurate stories including claims that Mr Cummings returned to Durham after returning to work in Downing Street on 14 April.
“We will not waste our time answering a stream of false allegations about Mr Cummings from campaigning newspapers.”
Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, told Press Gazette this was “concerning” and that he has written to Number 10 for assurances “that this isn’t part of a wider campaign against the mainstream media in this country”.
“The Society of Editors is concerned at this latest development where Number 10 appears to be deciding when it wishes to engage with a free media in this country and when it feels it is inconvenient to do that,” he said.
Murray went on: “The mark of a Government that understands the role of a free media is that it will step up to the plate and answer questions put to it by media outlets that it may not see as its friends and allies and it may find the questions uncomfortable.
“To then dismiss them and say well you’re a campaigning news outlet, in other words campaigning on something we don’t like, is not acceptable and they appeared to row back from that afterwards.”
Murray recalled incidents of concern over the Government’s relationship with the media earlier this year.
Changes to Lobby briefings were imposed without consultation with journalists at the start of the year. It culminated in political journalists staging a walkout after Downing Street attempted to brief a select group and exclude others.
Mainstream broadcasters were also bypassed as Boris Johnson’s Brexit Day speech was filmed and distributed by the Government.
Murray said this weekend was a “further example of an administration that at times seems forgetful of the role of a free media and needs to be reminded of this”.
“And of course there is the bigger picture at play here and we look around the world and we see regimes, some would say the usual suspects, who are using the Covid-19 crisis as a screen for them to bring in very rigid severe controls on their media which has happened in Hungary, it’s happening in Russia and it’s happening in South Africa.
“And in this country we want to point a finger at them and say free media is a free media, you don’t do something like this.
“But when our own Government is issuing statements saying we do not answer questions from media sources that we don’t like or we think are campaigning against us, what an example that is to set to those other countries.”
The UK slipped down the World Press Freedom Index rankings to 35th place out of 180 countries this year, despite having hosted the inaugural global conference for media freedom in July.
Professor Charlie Beckett of LSE wrote yesterday that Number 10’s approach in responding to the story had seemingly taken inspiration from Donald Trump’s White House.
“For example, attacking the fact-based revelations in the Mirror and the Guardian as ‘inaccurate’ (in what way? tell us!) and as ‘campaigning’ journalism (implying it is partisan and discountable),” he wrote.
“It’s similar to Trump’s cry of ‘fake news’ about any hostile coverage. By attacking the motive of the accuser you avoid addressing the actual charge.”
He added that the collaboration between the Mirror and the Guardian was “an interesting piece of cooperation that paid dividends”.
“Instead of accepting the Government’s terms of engagement, perhaps journalists should work together on lines of questioning and even the physical details of media management?”
Picture: Reuters/Hannah Mckay