3 février 2020

UK: Banning of journalists from Downing Street press briefing latest worrying move by Boris Johnson’s new government

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson reacts as he delivers a speech at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, south east London on February 3, 2020.
Today’s attempt by Downing Street to ban select journalists from a press briefing is the latest of a number of worrying steps taken by Boris Johnson’s new government that restrict press freedom. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for an immediate reversal of this alarming trend before the UK follows the US further down the World Press Freedom Index.

On 3 February, political journalists walked out of a Downing Street press briefing en masse after an aide attempted to ban selected reporters from attending. The Prime Minister’s Director of Communications, Lee Cain, reportedly tried to prevent journalists from the Independent, the i, the Mirror, HuffPost, PoliticsHome, and others from covering the briefing, on the grounds that they had not been specifically invited. A handful of media had received invitations to a “No10 technical background briefing on the UK’s future relationship with the EU;” however, the journalists who had been invited walked out in protest to the barring of access for their colleagues.

Political journalists had recently complained about the change in location of daily press briefings from Parliament to Downing Street. Many feared this measure could be used to impose restrictions on which media were permitted access, and as highlighted in a letter signed by every national newspaper editor, otherwise “create barriers to covering democracy and impede the work of a free press.” 

The move also followed last week’s controversial decision by the government to record and release the Prime Minister’s 31st January Brexit Day address directly to video rather than allowing broadcast media to film it, per standard practice. Broadcasters who then declined to air the pre-recorded speech faced accusations of bias.

In December, it was confirmed that the government was considering decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee that provides the majority of the BBC’s funding - a step that could effectively defund the country’s foremost public service broadcaster. Reports also emerged that ministers have been banned from appearing on BBC Radio 4’s flagship news and current affairs programme, the Today Programme - a move criticised as an attempt to “delegitimise” the broadcaster.

“Restrictions on journalists’ access and threats against public service media are nothing short of alarming, and are disturbingly reminiscent of early Trump administration moves in the US - practices that should be reversed, not replicated. We call on the Prime Minister to ensure that such steps are immediately ceased, and that this government is acting in line with the country’s obligations to protect and respect press freedom,” said RSF UK Bureau Director Rebecca Vincent.

During the General Election campaign, the Conservative Party also filed an unsuccessful complaint with communications regulator Ofcom over the decision by Channel 4 to “empty chair” the party with a melting ice sculpture in the 28th November Climate Debate when Boris Johnson declined to participate. A party source was quoted as threatening to review Channel 4’s public service broadcasting licence if the Conservatives returned to government.

The UK is ranked 33rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.