“False allegations”, “falsehoods and errors”, “inaccurate article”, “don’t believe everything you read in the papers” - press freedom has come under serious threat from UK officials in recent weeks as the lockdown continues.
On 22 May, The Guardian and The Daily Mirror newspapers broke stories reporting that the Prime Minister’s senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, had driven 260 miles from London to Durham with his family whilst his wife was experiencing Covid-19 symptoms in March, when the government had issued guidance that everyone must stay at home. The story dominated national news coverage for days, with further details emerging as public anger erupted over Cummings’ apparent contravention of the lockdown rules.
Downing Street issued an unusual statement in response: “We will not waste our time answering a stream of false allegations about Mr Cummings from campaigning newspapers”. On 26 May - the day after Cummings held an unprecedented press conference at Downing Street to give his version of events - 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 indicative of a worrying trend of governmental bodies’ heavy-handed responses to reporting on stories related to the Covid-19 pandemic. It has also become common for officials to echo versions of the refrain “You should not believe everything you read in the newspapers”.
“We are alarmed by the UK government’s dismissal of serious public interest reporting as ‘false’ and coming from ‘campaigning newspapers’. These Trumpian tactics are only serving to fuel hostility and public distrust in media. This worrying trend is certainly not in keeping with the government’s stated commitment to champion global media freedom - and must be immediately reversed before the UK’s press freedom climate is further eroded”, said RSF UK Bureau Director Rebecca Vincent.
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.
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”.
Reporters are also facing restrictions in covering the government’s daily press briefings, during which the Prime Minister or another designated official provides updates to the public on the Covid-19 situation in the country. Journalists are limited to virtual participation, and their microphones are almost always cut immediately after an initial question, with follow-up questions rarely allowed - severely limiting their ability to rigorously question the presiding official.
“The vigorous questioning Dominic Cummings faced in person at his Downing Street press conference was a stark contrast to what is being permitted at the daily government press briefings - and also shows that physical attendance can be managed safely. Number 10 should reinstate in-person press conferences without further delay and allow journalists to do their jobs unfettered”, said Vincent.
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 as openDemocracy was a “campaigning” organisation. Cusick’s recent reporting for openDemocracy exposed serious flaws in the government’s Covid-19 testing regime.
Foreign correspondents are not permitted to take part in the daily government press briefings at all, and report facing increasing difficulties in getting access to - or information from - public officials.
The UK is ranked 35th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.