Number 10’s approach to the media should worry us all

The government's response to the Cummings revelations is part of wider pattern of threats to press freedom here.

Matt Hancock at a Covid press conference

When the news of Dominic Cummings’ rule breaking first appeared over the weekend, No 10 went into overdrive.

It was unusual because the government had been given weeks to respond to the allegations from the Guardian and the Daily Mirror. But when the devastating story emerged, No 10 lashed out at “false allegations”, “falsehoods and errors”, an “inaccurate article” – urging people not to “believe everything you read in the papers”.

It was straight out of the Trump playbook: denouncing factual, investigative journalism as ‘fake news’. Almost all the allegations were eventually confirmed by both No 10 and Dominic Cummings, when it became clear the evidence was overwhelming.  

That initial response should worry us all. Now a global press freedom watchdog – Reporters Without Borders (RSF) – is warning that press freedom has come under serious threat from UK officials.

‘Campaigning newspapers’

Let’s go through what happened. On 22 May, The Guardian and The Daily Mirror newspapers broke stories reporting that the Prime Minister’s most senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, had driven 260 miles from London to Durham with his family whilst his wife was experiencing possible Covid-19 symptoms in March. The government guidance at the time – in fact, the law – was clear: stay at home, do not go to second homes, and self-isolate if you have symptoms.  

No 10 were quick to hit out at the “campaigning newspapers” who broke the story, using good old fashioned journalistic digging. You’ll notice that slur was soon dropped when it became clear the government could no longer even rely on the Daily Mail – that famously lefty rag – to have its back. When Tory MPs began speaking up, calling for Cummings to go, denunciations of “misleading” news from “campaigning papers” were no longer tenable.

The initial No 10 statement was, as one Private Eye journalist put it, a classic ‘non-denial denial’. No detail on why the story was false – because it was pretty much spot on. Mr Cummings’ own rose garden press statement was riddled with hints that the media was to blame for the public anger: not his own actions. Shoot the messenger.

Worrying trend

As Reporters Without Borders have noted, there’s a clear thread between the No 10 response and the right’s response online: on 26 May – the day after Cummings held an unprecedented press conference at Downing Street, confirming nearly all the details of the reports – the hashtag “#ScumMedia” was trending on Twitter in the UK, with a high volume of accounts aggressively attacking media coverage of the Cummings story, largely focused on Sky News’ reporting.

Number 10’s reaction to the latest reporting on Cummings is part of a pattern of heavy-handed responses to reporting on stories related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Let’s look at just a few recent examples flagged by press freddom watchdog RSF:

1. On 19 April, an oddly detailed point-by-point reaction was posted to the Department of Health and Social Care Media Centre’s blog, disputing a widely-lauded investigation by The Sunday Times, ‘Coronavirus: 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster’. The unnamed government spokesperson said the article contained a “series of falsehoods and errors” and accused The Sunday Times – a paper of record – of “actively misrepresenting” the government’s work in the early stages of the pandemic.An enormousrebuttalblog later appeared on the Department of Health’s website – but not before plenty of anonymous sniping had been sent to journalists.

2. Towards the end of April, the PM’s official spokesman reacted dismissively to growing concerns over the fact that Dominic Cummings sat in on expert SAGE meetings of scientists. No 10 claimed it was an example of why ‘public trust in the media has collapsed during the emergency’. It would be concerning if it was true – but it wasn’t. YouGov polling showed a different story: “There simply has been no collapse in public trust in news media during the coronavirus outbreak.”            

3. On 15 May, Manchester Evening News politics and investigations editor Jennifer Williams was forced to defend her story on government plans to scrap a scheme to provide emergency shelter to rough sleepers, when the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government took to Twitter to accuse her of publishing an “inaccurate article”. Williams later posted that writing a story that the government could “shout at you about” makes you feel sick: “wobbly, panicky, paranoid”.

4. Reporters are facing growing restrictions in covering the government’s daily press briefings. Tuesday’s briefing saw journalists’ microphones cut immediately after an initial question – with follow-up questions now routinely banned. It severely limits journalists’ ability to rigorously question the presiding official. Reporters Without Borders are calling for the government to now allow journalists to attend in person, rather than just video-link – to stop them being cut off mid-sentence, as happened with ITV’s Robert Peston on Tuesday.

5. Investigative outlet openDemocracy has reported that its correspondent, James Cusick, a parliamentary lobby pass holder who has worked as a political journalist for decades, was told by Downing Street he would not be permitted to ask questions at government press briefings. Cusick’s recent reporting for the site has exposed flaws in the government’s Covid-19 testing regime. Foreign correspondents also appear to be banned from the daily government press briefings – at a time when all outlets are finding harder to get on-the-record facts from government.

The UK dropped two levels in Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 World Press Freedom Index ranking 35th out of 180 countries. Without swift change in this government’s approach to the media, things aren’t looking good for transparency at the top.

Josiah Mortimer is co-editor of Left Foot Forward.

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