Downing Street’s attempts to control access to press briefings is “entirely standard practice”, the Government has said following a mass walkout by journalists after senior reporters were barred from a meeting at Number 10.
The head of the civil service has been urged to investigate the “deeply disturbing” decision to order journalists from some of the UK’s major news organisations to leave before a briefing on Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans.
Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill was told the situation – which led to a boycott by journalists who had been allowed to attend the briefing – was “damaging to democracy”.
The call for him to launch an inquiry came from Labour leadership hopeful Sir Keir Starmer, who warned that the actions of Mr Johnson’s political allies in Downing Street risked undermining the integrity of the civil service.
Johnson’s decision to ban selected media from having access to civil service briefings damages democracy.
I have written to the Cabinet Secretary to ask him to investigate this matter. pic.twitter.com/BQxv38xdQs
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) February 4, 2020
Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith was forced to defend Number 10’s actions in the House of Commons.
She told MPs the Government was “committed to being open in its dealings with the press and to the principles of media freedom” and claimed “the events of yesterday were a very good example of this”.
The minister said no journalists are barred from “official briefings hosted by the Prime Minister’s spokesman” but “it is entirely standard practice for the Government to host additional technical specialist briefings, as was the case yesterday”.
Selected journalists were invited to Number 10 for a briefing from the Prime Minister’s chief Europe adviser David Frost on Monday, but correspondents from organisations that were not on Downing Street’s hand-picked list also tried to get in.
When political correspondents arrived inside Number 10 they were asked their names and told to stand on opposite sides of a rug in the entrance hall.
Mr Johnson’s director of communications Lee Cain then invited those on one side to enter and told those on the other side to leave.
When his actions were questioned he told reporters: “We are welcome to brief whoever we want, whenever we want.”
The journalists excluded included outlets viewed as left-wing or critical of the Government, although Downing Street sources said it was “clearly nonsense” to claim the decision was made on political grounds.
In protest at the treatment of colleagues from rival organisations, all the journalists present chose to walk out rather than receive the briefing.
The Father of the House, veteran Tory MP Sir Peter Bottomley, said: “I do believe that it’d be sensible for the Government to consider having a talk to the senior political editors who did walk out and see if there’s a way of getting over this problem and resolving it.”
In his letter to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Keir said: “The actions of the Prime Minister’s director of communications, who is a political appointee, are deeply disturbing.
“I am concerned that they have undermined the civil service’s ability to comply with its core values of integrity, objectivity and impartiality.
“Equally, banning sections of the media from attending important briefings about important matters of Government is damaging to democracy.”
He said the media’s access to the Prime Minister’s chief negotiator “should not be determined by political favouritism”.
A Number 10 source said: “We reserve the right to brief journalists which we choose whenever we wish to, and that is not something abnormal.”
The source said around eight or nine organisations from “across the political spectrum” were invited to the briefing, including the BBC, Sky, The Guardian, ITV, The Sun, the Daily Mail and The Times.
The PA news agency, along with other news agencies, were not invited and were not present when the walkout happened.
Shadow culture secretary Tracy Brabin said: “It is concerning that Boris Johnson seems to be resorting to tactics imported from Donald Trump to hide from scrutiny.”