The Association of European Journalists calls on the UK government headed by prime minister Boris Johnson to end at once its restrictive and partisan media policies. On Monday British political journalists staged a collective walkout from an official briefing arranged at Downing Street, the residence of the prime minister, in protest at a decision to separate out and exclude critical media on an arbitrary basis.
Under the new policy, as explained by the prime ministers’ aides, favoured journalists are routinely being granted special access to some press briefings a part of an “inner lobby” while others, including the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror and the Huffington Post, are excluded. When challenged yesterday one of Mr Johnson’s aides reportedly said “we reserve the right to brief whoever we like, whenever we like’.
The prime minister’s staff had invited selected political journalists to a “technical briefing” on Boris Johnson’s plans for a trade deal with the EU. When other members of the Westminster “lobby” – full-time political journalists based in the Houses of Parliament – showed up as well, the group was told that only those who had been invited could go in and the rest should leave. All the journalists present then walked out together in a joint protest. They included the BBC political editor Laura Kuensberg, and the political editor of the Daily Mirror, Pippa Crerari who called the exclusion “sinister and sad”.
The Society of Editors, in a letter signed by the editors of all UK national newspapers as well as leading regional and broadcast journalists, protested at the denial of access to briefings to particular journalist and called on Boris Johnson to reverse his government’s practice of holding regular briefings at Downing Street instead of the traditional and more convenient location inside parliament. The editors expressed real concern that the changes would “hamper the workings of a free press”.
The AEJ’s Media Freedom Representative, William Horsley, said: “The UK government has laid itself open to the charge of hypocrisy by seeking to evade the robust media scrutiny of its actions by independent media that is essential in an open society, while it also claims to be acting as a champion of media freedom to the rest of the world.”
Last July the UK hosted a major Global Media Freedom Conference in London; and the UK has now assumed a leading role in a 33-nation Media Freedom Coalition whose publicly stated goals are to ensure that international and UN-sanctioned standards related to media freedom are upheld by the countries making up the Coalition themselves. The 33 states have also announced their intention to apply significant pressure on other states by diplomatic and other means to encourage them to discard repressive laws and practices that stifle of arbitrarily restrict press freedom.
In the context of the Global Media Freedom Coalition the UK Foreign Secretary Raab wants to ensure that the UK imposes harsh sanctions on individuals found to be responsible for serious abuses of fundamental rights. And last week, in a speech about Britian’s post-Brexit outlook, Mr Raab claimed that the UK would show itself to be “even better neighbours, allies and partners” through its membership of NATO, the OSCE and the Council of Europe. Among the Council of Europe’s foremost priority is that member states should exert themselves to create a “favourable environment” for free and independnet media to hold governments to account.
In the six months since Boris Johnson’s government was elected it has provoked sharp protests from the UK media as well as opposition parties for its high-handed dealings with the media. The prime minister and his aides have imposed tighter restrictions on ministers’ contacts with the media and boycotted both the BBC’s flagship morning radio current affairs show, the Today Programme, and Channel 4 News, both of which are known for asking searching questions to government representatives.
Mr Johnson’s communications team have also sought to bypass the mainstream media altogether to deliver messages directly to the public in their own way. Mr Johnson’s “address to the nation” to mark the UK’s departure from the EU on 31 January was filmed and released by his own staff instead of by a national TV network. Number Ten Downing Street staff were said to be furious after the BBC and some other networks declined to air clips from the message in their live programmes marking the actual moment of Brexit last Friday night.