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Lobby and Media Briefings: Journalists' Access

Volume 671: debated on Tuesday 4 February 2020

(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster if he will make a statement on the barring of certain journalists from official civil servant media briefings at the direction of special advisers and the arrangements for future lobby and media briefings.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to clarify this situation. This Government are committed to being open in their dealings with the press and to the principles of media freedom, and the events of yesterday were a good example of that. The Prime Minister delivered a speech on the future of the UK-EU relationship. He also took extensive questions from journalists. Following that, there was a further briefing for journalists by the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson, which was made available to any journalist who wanted it directly after the speech and was all on the record.

Lobby briefings typically take place twice a day. All those with a Press Gallery pass are able to attend these briefings and to question the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson however they wish. No journalists are barred from official media briefings hosted by the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson. It is entirely standard practice for the Government to host additional technical, specialist briefings, as was the case yesterday. This particular briefing, which the media have reported on, was an additional, smaller meeting due to be held by a special adviser in order to improve the understanding of the Government’s negotiating aims for the future relationship. I am delighted that there are so many right hon. and hon. Members here today who would also like to improve their understanding of such things.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this timely and important urgent question. The ability of the lobby to have access to briefings without favour is a long-standing tradition, and one vital to the health of a functioning democracy. Yesterday, certain publications were barred from a briefing on future trade deals with David Frost, the Prime Minister’s adviser on Europe. According to reports, when journalists from other news outlets arrived, the Prime Minister’s director of communications, a special adviser, said:

“Those invited to the briefing can stay—everyone else, I’m afraid, will have to leave.”

When challenged, he added:

“We’re welcome to brief whoever we like, whenever we like.”

The code of conduct for special advisers states that

“special advisers must not: ask civil servants to do anything which is inconsistent with their obligations under the Civil Service Code”.

On the David Frost briefing yesterday, will the Minister tell us who decided which journalists could attend and what the selection criteria were? If that decision was made by a special adviser, are they in violation of both the code of conduct for special advisers and the civil service code? Can she confirm whether civil servants were in attendance?

Sadly, yesterday was not an isolated incident; the Huawei briefing last week was exactly the same. I understand that that was given by Ciaran Martin of the National Cyber Security Centre, plus civil servants from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. So will the Minister tell us who decided which journalists could attend and what the selection criteria were? If that decision was made by a special adviser, are they in violation of both the code of conduct for special advisers and the civil service code? In addition, where is the reply to the letter to the Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill reported in The Times, as, apparently, he does not have “a problem” with this? Can the Minister confirm what the Cabinet Secretary’s advice is and whether he believes there have been breaches of the special adviser code of conduct in either case?

Finally, on 13 January the editors of those national newspapers, with the Society of Editors, wrote to the Prime Minister, but we still do not have the reply. When was it sent? Has it been written? The Government’s behaviour in these matters threatens the civil service’s core values of impartiality and objectivity. It also brings into question the integrity of future Government media briefings and the conduct of their special advisers, and it damages a free and vibrant press, which is central to this parliamentary democracy.

I am more than willing to repeat the points I made, which were that this briefing was additional to normal lobby handlings. Those lobby handlings are entirely normal, standard and routine, and have been so over successive Governments. I am not taking any further lectures from the Labour party, which needs to look in the mirror a little on this. The hon. Lady is part of a shadow Government who wish to regulate and introduce Soviet-style licensing of newspapers; and whose leader and shadow Chancellor take money from media organisations, such as Press TV, that are owned by foreign, hostile Governments. Under that culture, a BBC editor had to have protection at the Labour party conference, and the shadow Chancellor encourages direct action against journalists who do not write what he likes. Conservative Members strongly support the free press. I have set out the ways in which we do that. In addition to the briefings and the very normal routine operation of the lobby, the Prime Minister has a huge amount of further appointments and engagements on a range of channels. For example, he did more than 120 media engagements during the election. Senior members of the Government come to this House to answer those questions again, and we intend to continue doing those things. That choice is absolutely clear, and we on this side of the House stand up for a free and vibrant press. The hon. Lady needs to ask herself and her colleagues the same questions.

I do not think that anything has happened so far that matches what Alastair Campbell did in trying to get political editors sacked and saying that the then Government would not co-operate at all. It would be sensible for the Government to consider talking to the senior political editors who walked out, to see whether there is a way of getting over this problem and resolving it. Much of what my hon. Friend has said is fine, but the last bit leaves unresolved problems. There is no greater competition for an MP trying to get themselves into the media than from media people trying to get themselves reported and on air, but they walked away from it, so there is a problem and it needs solving.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Father of the House for his wisdom and long sight on this issue. He shares with us exactly what these things looked like over successive Governments, which is to say that it is quite routine for there to be lobby briefings on a regular basis—we run them twice daily—and in addition to that some specialist and technical briefings. I understand the point that my hon. Friend closed his contribution with and am sure that that will be correctly considered. It is so valuable that we hear from him, given his long sight on this issue, which reminds us how these things look over history.

What the hon. Lady said is woeful and desperate. It makes Comical Ali look like a Pulitzer prize winner. Yesterday was a black day for press freedom and no amount of sleekit, self-justifying nonsense from the hon. Lady is going to get her off the Trumpian hook. The next thing will be the Prime Minister talking about fake news and banning broadcasters—oh, wait: he already has. Just how sinister can it get? The names of journalists were read out and groups assembled on either side of a rug before it was announced who would have access and who would be excluded. No Scottish media outlets were even told about the briefing. I congratulate all the journalists involved yesterday for showing solidarity with their colleagues and refusing to participate in that circus. We know that the Prime Minister dislikes scrutiny and actively hides from the press; we know that Dominic Cummings and his henchmen have their own agenda and are actively trying to bypass and diminish the media; and we all know that the Prime Minister looks like a prize buffoon under the hard questioning that he does not like. Is that not the real reason why we have this particular agenda, Minister?

The short answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is no. The longer answer is that he, too, should be careful about what he says. If he wants to hand out prizes, perhaps he might look back to the days when Alex Salmond, formerly of this parish, used to routinely exclude journalists from his briefings. There is a tinge here, Mr Speaker, of people who are not willing to look at their own record before they come here and prance around with a few too many adjectives.

The other thing I would add is that we on the Government Benches, like others in other parties, are proud Unionists. We recognise that there are national broadcasters that deal with all parts of our country. Long may that last.

There clearly do need to be better arrangements for lobby briefings than was the case yesterday, but I detect the faint air of fake outrage. When I was a journalist, I regarded it as my job to talk to the people who could tell me what I needed to do to provide the story. Indeed, when I was a Minister, if I wanted to talk to individual journalists, there were ways of doing so that might be useful to me and to the individual journalists. I agree with the Father of the House that there need to be improvements in the system, but does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that what we are seeing here is some fake outrage and a mass outbreak of snowflakery?

I am grateful for that view from a senior Member of the House. My right hon. Friend is correct: what we are seeing here is a very normal operation whereby a specialist briefing is offered. That is a good thing, and we are doing that to support the other ways in which we are already an extremely open and accessible Government, providing briefing and access through a range of channels so that people can be well-informed.

Mr Speaker:

“Attacks on media freedom are attacks on human rights…Too often, it is governments who are the source of threats to media freedom. Governments—which are responsible for protecting human rights—instead are the ones to violate them.”

Those are not my words, but words taken directly from the global pledge on media freedom that was signed last July by the then Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt). The Minister clearly does not understand what media freedom means; does she understand what hypocrisy means?

I do not think the hon. Lady understands that her party has been the worst of all on this point. Her party is the one that has offered to open up journalists’ tax returns and has had to provide bodyguards to journalists. All that is because the leader of her party is of the kind of bent that looks down a camera and says, “Change is coming.” Well, the British people ensured that he was the one who was changed. The hon. Lady should heed that.

Will the Minister confirm two things for the House—first, that the Government will of course look at making sure that briefings are done in a sensible way, with the agreement of all members of the lobby over the longer term; and secondly, that this Government and, indeed, this House should always be committed to there being no political interference in our media, because that is a foundation of our democracy?

My hon. Friend is right on that point. As I have said, the Government are upholders of freedom and accessibility for Government briefings. We take it as a matter of pride that we are an extremely open Government, ensuring that there are briefings available across a range of channels. As I have already said, what has been happening recently, and the subject of today’s question, is in fact the perfectly normal operation of the lobby: twice daily briefings and, in addition to that, the offer of further specialist briefings. There is clearly the ability to hold the Government to account, and that is how we intend to continue to work.

Does the Minister agree that, unlike what happened in the US, it was brilliant to see our journalists showing solidarity with those journalists who were barred from the briefing and staging a joint walk-out? On another note, does the Minister think that the Prime Minister and his advisers are merely trying to copy President Trump’s tactics and trying to stifle our free press?

Does the Minister agree that it is ridiculous for the Labour party to pose as champions of press freedom when, as mentioned earlier, the BBC’s political editor has to be assigned a bodyguard to attend the Labour party conference? Does she agree that that is unacceptable and that our press should be able to report without fear?

The press certainly should be able to report without fear. We are strongly in support of there being a free press. Let me point to another example, which is that of the Cairncross review. The Government are pressing forward with ways to support our media to adapt to the digital age, and that is in addition to what I have been saying about the way the Government are ensuring that lobby briefings are available.

I congratulate the Minister on the Orwellian double speak of her opening remarks. I am sure she will go far in this Government.

Those of us who support independent press regulation have, over the years, received a number of lectures on press freedom from those on the Government Benches, so it ill behoves the Minister to dodge our reasonable questions today. She has mentioned how important the Union is to her. I spoke to members of the Scottish lobby about this issue this morning and it is well established that the Scottish media outlets were excluded from the briefing yesterday. Will the Minister clarify a very simple question—was that an oversight or was it deliberate?

I have already explained that this particular briefing was arranged to provide further specialist briefing. It was not in itself a matter for the kind of questioning that the hon. and learned Lady is putting about around whether it should be for Scotland or the United Kingdom. That question is rightly subject to a far greater debate on which, I gently point out, she is on the wrong side. The point is that the British people have asked for a clear resolution of our relationship with the European Union. We got Brexit done last weekend and we now move on to the next stage of the negotiation. We all want the lobby to be able to benefit from a good understanding of the negotiating objectives of the UK Government. The UK Government speak for all parts of the UK in that, so such matters are not really the subject of the kind of questioning the hon. and learned Lady is asking after.

Given that the Labour party called for the resignation of BBC journalists who had the courage to report on antisemitism, does the Minister agree that it is the Conservative party that stands up for a healthy, vibrant and independent press?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s contribution. He is absolutely right that what we are talking about here today is how the Government are, ought to be and will be, committed to being open in their dealings with the press and to the principles of media freedom. That is something that we stick by firmly as a matter of principle and of practice.

I am really puzzled by what the Minister says, because lobby journalists walked out in solidarity with each other, and they said that there was no precedent for this, so either they are wrong, or she is wrong. I want to know why she is saying, as she seems to be, that the lobby journalists are wrong, that the National Union of Journalists is wrong, that everybody else is wrong and that this Government are not trying to hide from scrutiny, which is how it appears.

I cannot account for the hon. Lady’s understanding, but what I can say is that this Government are making themselves available across a range of briefings and across a range of channels—I have already covered that point—including social media, broadcast channels and innovations such as the people’s Prime Minister’s questions, which is a very good thing. What I can add is that the standard practice of the lobby is that all members with a press pass are able to attend and ask all questions that they would wish to ask. That is how the lobby functions, and we absolutely uphold that. That is happening twice daily and, in addition to that, we are offering further specialist briefings, which is what we are talking about here today.

I declare an interest as a former special adviser, most recently in No. 10. I endorse the comments that my hon. Friend has made: there is nothing unusual in providing specialist briefings. Indeed, I was there when we provided one on the Prime Minister’s excellent Brexit deal, which has happily now passed through this House. Is it not important that we keep perspective? In my experience, lobby journalists are well able to look after themselves.

I welcome that glimpse of experience. It is important to say again that what we are discussing here today are the normal operations of the lobby. We are making sure that that is supplemented by these additional briefings.

These are the words of the Prime Minister in 2017 when he was Foreign Secretary:

“Where governments fear freedom of expression they often try to shut down media and civil society, or clip their wings.”

He also said:

“A free media is vital to creating a vibrant, informed and engaged population and helps to support a safer, more prosperous and progressive world.”

Why does he now think that freedom of the press is important everywhere except Downing Street?

Because the hon. Lady is wrongly describing the situation. The Prime Minister stands by those words, as do I.

While the Labour party, true to form these days it seems, is obsessing about the London bubble, will my hon. Friend confirm that the Treasury is looking at how best it can support the media across the country? What impact does she believe that the recently announced business rates relief for local newspaper offices will have, particularly on great Bishop Auckland organisations, such as the Teesdale Mercury and The Northern Echo?

My hon. Friend makes a helpful wider point, which is how we, as a Government, can use policy and indeed scrutinise it here in this place—I say this as the Budget and other such vehicles come up—to look at ways to support the vibrancy of our press and media across the country. I referenced the Cairncross review earlier. These things, together with fiscal measures, are important in that debate.

I confess that there is one journalist I would quite like to keep out of Downing Street, but he is the Prime Minister and, unfortunately, he won the general election.

There is a serious issue here: every political generation in government want to try to avoid scrutiny if possible, and it is the job of this House to try to ensure that they do not get away with it. So, all the whataboutery in the world will not stop us complaining when we see a clear pattern of the Prime Minister running his leadership campaign, running his general election campaign and now running the Government in a way that is trying to avoid scrutiny. I am sure that, in private, the Minister would agree.

This is simply barking up the wrong tree again. The Government are ensuring that they are open for scrutiny. The Foreign Secretary stood here yesterday and took scores of questions on the very same subject matter. He was again on television shows on Sunday. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury was on a number of programmes yesterday. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was out this morning; the Home Secretary was out this morning. The Prime Minister himself took many questions on the subject matter in hand yesterday. Nobody is hiding from scrutiny.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this very much has the flavour of a storm in a Westminster bubble? Will she outline what further steps she might be taking to improve the ability of our regional and local newspapers to hold all of us as politicians to account, outside of that bubble?

This is an important point. As we have already discussed, there are ways to do that, and this Government are committed to them. We have mentioned some points of policy, and we have looked at the business rates point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison). To that, I add the way that this Government are making sure that they are available on social media, which, by its very nature, does not require to be inside any Westminster bubble. That is a way for people rightly to be able to hold this Government to account. It is that kind of principle that we hold very highly, and what I have been able to outline today are all the ways in which we are doing that.

Clearly, the Minister cannot defend what has happened and therefore she is providing a masterclass in whataboutery. Yesterday, Downing Street announced that there was a new show in town and that it was doing it simply because it can. It was deliberately sinister and knowingly provocative. I am sure that those involved are celebrating the fact that they have an urgent question out of it. What happened yesterday was out of President Trump’s playbook for bullies, and I am sure that those involved are feeling pretty smug about it. Did the Minister and her colleagues know that this was the type of Government they were voting for when they so enthusiastically backed Boris?

The type of Government we are talking about is the type that has just won a resounding majority at a general election and has the support of the people. I think that is a pretty good answer to his question.

This does smack of either a deliberate decision to make sure that the mainstream press is being discussed in this way in this House today, or just an almighty mistake. Will the Minister, who is a reasonable woman, not use this opportunity to say sorry and that it will not happen again?

The hon. Lady takes us on to very, very sober ground, and rightly so. She has great experience as a scrutiniser in this House, but the fact is that that is the wrong characterisation of what has happened. I have set out what the facts of the matter are: what we are dealing with is standard lobby procedures supplemented by an additional specialist briefing. There is nothing more sinister than that, and I think that even she, who is also a very reasonable Member of this Chamber, is just going a little too far.

It is quite extraordinary that the Government say that there is effectively nothing to see here, when the News Media Association and the National Union of Journalists have both said that this potentially represents a threat to the freedom of the press, and both have asked for the Government to consult them on the changes. Once again, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Prime Minister are missing in action in this House, but I wonder whether the Minister could tell us what action she thinks they would have taken, as former journalists, if they had found themselves excluded from a No. 10 lobby briefing.

I think the hon. Lady knows—or she should know, or she will come to know—that, as a Minister at the Dispatch Box, I speak for myself and I do not need to speak for two more senior colleagues. I speak for myself as part of the Government—as part of collective responsibility. Therefore, all Ministers are part of the same message, and that message is absolutely clear here today. It is that we run routine lobby procedures that are more than adequate for ensuring that, if they wish to, everybody with a press pass can ask any question of the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson. That is how that operates, and we are supplementing that with the additional briefings, which I have now mentioned many times. [Interruption.] I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker, if this is coming across as boring to some opposition Members, but it is the fact.

The Prime Minister’s head of communications, who is a political appointee, tried to fix access to a briefing by David Frost, who is a civil service appointee. That is such a breach of protocol that the entire press lobby refused to attend that little soiree. Can the Minister confirm that Sir Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary, will be investigating this matter?

The Scotsman journalist Paris Gourtsoyannis tweeted that Downing Street did not tell Scottish or regional journalists about the briefing. Can the Minister tell me why she does not value Scottish media? Does she agree that is difficult to report outside the Westminster bubble if the Government do not invite Scottish journalists?

I have already answered that point a few times. Again, the answer is that, under the lobby arrangements, any member of the lobby with a press pass is more than welcome to put any question to the Government. That goes for journalists from any corner of our United Kingdom. We on the Government Benches are a Unionist party, and we think that that it should be more than possible to run that kind of practice across the nations of our wonderful country. We welcome close co-operation between the people and the press of Scotland and every other part of our United Kingdom, which I hope will stay united. Again, all of that is supplemented by what we are offering as technical briefings, which I hope can be read as spreading across the Union in that way.

I was interested to hear the Minister refer to the people’s PMQs on Facebook and engagement on social media as some sort of alternative to proper scrutiny of the Government’s decisions by the press lobby. The Prime Minister cannot even answer what shampoo he uses in the people’s PMQs on Facebook. Why is he running scared?

The Minister has the unenviable task of coming to the House to answer this urgent question, and implying that something that resulted in journalists walking out en masse is perfectly ordinary and nothing to be concerned about. One of her critical defences is, “Well, everybody else did it before we did it, but there’s nothing wrong with it anyway”, which is concerning in and of itself. As a former civil servant, will the Minister tell the House emphatically whether the civil service code was left intact after yesterday’s decision —yes or no?

I am a little confused by the hon. Gentleman’s question. I do not know whether he thinks I am a former civil servant, but I am happy to make it clear that I am not. Forgive me, I do not know his biography—[Interruption.] He is a former civil servant; I see. In that case, I am delighted to hear from him given his experience. The only thing I can say is what I have already said—that the person who was providing the briefing was a political appointee, David Frost, and that it is not uncommon for senior civil servants to brief the media on a range of technical issues. The rest of his point goes to questions about codes that are not relevant because of my clarification as to Mr Frost’s status.

From the Minister’s previous role in the Northern Ireland Office, she will be aware that a major public inquiry will report shortly, covering—among other things—the role, conduct and behaviour of special advisers. In terms of Whitehall, what can the Minister say to reassure the House that special advisers cannot give directions to civil servants, and that there is a culture in which civil servants can safely resist inappropriate instructions that they are given by special advisers?

I am grateful for that question. As the hon. Member notes, there is much road ahead in Northern Ireland in the restoration of the institutions and the work that goes alongside that. All the codes that buttress our public work—whether for the civil service or special advisers—remain as they were and will be upheld.

May I advise the Minister that if she is trying to come across as representing a Government who are in favour of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, it is not a particularly good look for each question to be preceded by somebody from the Whips Office scurrying along the green Benches, desperately handing out crib sheets to tell Government Back Benchers what questions to ask and not to ask?

This is the Government who responded to critical coverage on Channel 4 by suggesting that Channel 4 should be closed down, and who responded to critical coverage from the BBC by suggesting scrapping the licence fee—effectively closing down the BBC—so the media have good cause to be concerned. As far as I can tell, the Minister’s excuses are twofold. The first is that it was a specialist briefing; so, presumably the journalists who were thrown out were not clever enough or specialist enough to understand it. The second is that somehow only certain newspaper readers would be interested in what was to be reported. Who decides what the press are interested in reporting? Surely freedom of the press means that the editor decides what the readership are interested in, not the Prime Minister.

And that is why we have lobby arrangements whereby every editor—any journalist—with a press pass is more than able to ask any question they like of the Government.

The briefing that took place was on our future relationship with the European Union. My constituency is in Aberdeen, which is projected to be the hardest-hit city in the entire UK as a result of Brexit, yet the Westminster correspondent for the Aberdeen’s local Press and Journal was not invited. Indeed, no Scottish lobbyists were invited to that briefing. Does the contempt that this Government show to Scotland now extend to our press corps too?

No, it does not, because we are proudly serving the people of Scotland in ensuring our future prosperity and opportunity through the negotiations on our future relationship that we are conducting with the European Union. I have every hope that the outcome will be as good for the hon. Member’s constituents as it is for my constituents and constituents represented across the Chamber. It is right and proper that it is the United Kingdom Government who do this on behalf of the whole country, and can be held fully to account here in the Chamber and through the very many channels that I have spoken about throughout this urgent question.