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Media and Lobby Briefings

Volume 801: debated on Tuesday 4 February 2020


My Lords, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement an Answer given earlier today by my honourable friend the Minister for the Constitution to an Urgent Question in another place on allegations of the barring of journalists from Civil Service media briefings. The Statement is as follows:

“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 very good example of this. The Prime Minister delivered a speech on the future of the UK-EU relationship. He also took extensive questions from journalists. Following this, there was a further briefing for journalists by the Prime Minister’s official spokes- person. This 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.”

My Lords, I am amazed at the straight face the Minister kept throughout that Answer. I had little time to prepare myself to interrogate him and limited my research to visiting the Library. It is clear from the coverage in today’s press that a number of senior journalists for very important newspapers take a slightly different view from that expressed a minute ago by the noble Earl, who was repeating the Answer given in the other place. I cannot believe that the disparity between the way in which it was reported in the newspapers and the Statement that this Government are

“committed to being open in its dealings with the press and to the principles of media freedom”

can be easily reconciled. I am trying to avoid my suspicion of paranoia on the part of the Prime Minister by being myself paranoid. Yet I wonder on the basis of yesterday’s incident, which exemplifies a number of other well-known and well-reported incidents, whether we should not be a little more frank than the reply given in this particular Statement.

My Lords, I have to say to the noble Lord and your Lordships that, having myself been briefed earlier today, it became clear to me that a certain amount of disingenuousness has entered the public debate on this matter and in some of the press reporting. Briefings to selected journalists have been common practice across government for many years. I know that myself from my time in the Ministry of Defence. We had regular selected briefings for journalists. The briefing in Downing Street yesterday that has been covered in the press was explicitly billed as one such selected briefing, and I understand that invitations were issued to between five and 10 journalists. There should have been no misunderstanding about that. There is therefore nothing unusual in briefings for selected journalists.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the mother of a journalist. Will the noble Earl take back to No. 10 the fact that this House clearly did not believe that Statement? Both sides of the Chamber were laughing at the Statement that has just been given to us. Will he take back the message that, in a democracy, a free press does not have to express loyalty to the Government? In fact, it is their job to critique it.

My Lords, the Government support a free and open press, and we will continue to do so. I can only re-emphasise that there has been no attempt whatever to deprive journalists of information on any matter of government policy.

My Lords, Downing Street’s director of communications, Lee Cain, said:

“We are welcome to brief whoever we want whenever we want”.

But does the noble Earl not agree that this democratically elected Government are not welcome to ban whatever news outlet or journalist they want whenever they want? What were the criteria for this smaller meeting and where was the transparency? When does a smaller meeting shrink so much that it becomes Dominic Cummings or some other special adviser on his or her own?

As I said, my Lords, this was a technical and specialist briefing for selected journalists. There is an opportunity, twice a day, for anyone with a Press Gallery pass to attend lobby briefings and no journalists are barred. There was a lobby briefing yesterday afternoon when journalists had yet another opportunity to ask questions on the UK-EU relationship, which the Prime Minister had been addressing earlier in the day, or indeed to ask questions on any other topic. I am afraid that I cannot identify with the slant that the noble Baroness has put on this matter.

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter. Unfortunately, I am deaf in one ear and I do not always spot where people are speaking from. I hope that she will forgive me.

I must ask my noble friend: if the facts were so clear and in accordance with precedent, why did several respectable journalists from respectable organisations feel they had to leave as a protest?

I cannot comment on whether there was a genuine misunderstanding or whether certain people chose to misunderstand the basis on which invitations had been issued.

My Lords, we are lucky in this House to have a Minister who has the trust of the House, but we are in a situation where trust and transparency are at grave peril for all manner of different reasons, and not just in this country. It behoves the Government at this time to act in as trustworthy and transparent a manner as possible. In the interests of transparency, can the Minister provide a list of those journalists who were invited? Can he tell us whether they were indeed technical and specialist journalists? I would have thought that, if one is doing a technical and specialist briefing, it is more important to get the generalists inside the circle to understand these complex matters. Does he have a list, or did No. 10 compile a list, of people who were not invited and for what reason?

My Lords, I do not have a list of who was invited. I was merely given the bald statistics on numbers. If I can illuminate the noble Baroness on that matter, I will be happy to write to her.

My Lords, if the Government are committed to freedom of the press, why are government Ministers boycotting the “Today” programme?

My Lords, there is no boycott of the “Today” programme. It is entirely up to Ministers what programmes they choose to appear on. The “Today” programme does not have a constitutional right for Ministers to appear on it. Government Ministers have appeared on a range of national and regional programmes only this weekend and, indeed, yesterday and today. We have to remember that every government department has communication teams who communicate the work of the Government and Ministers very regularly indeed.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House who decided who should be included in the briefing? It seems that, increasingly, decisions in No. 10 are taken by a very limited number of individuals. I wonder whether on this particular occasion it was the man who wants to recruit weirdos or the man who used to be employed to dress as chicken and harass former Prime Ministers.

My Lords, I come back to the point I made earlier. Briefings for selected journalists are regular occurrences across government, not just in No. 10, and they have been for many years. Who drew up the list for this briefing, I cannot say.

My Lords, may I gently point out to the noble Earl that I do not think this was just a normal selective briefing? My understanding is that one of the reasons that so many journalists were keen to go to this briefing is that, rather than being one of the Prime Minister’s unseen spokesmen, the person who was going to give the briefing was Mr David Frost, the chief negotiator with the European Union, hence the degree of interest.

The noble Lord may be quite right. There probably was a lot of interest, but I say again that this briefing was to selected journalists. Other journalists had every opportunity yesterday at Greenwich and after the Prime Minister’s speech to ask any question they liked through the lobby process.

My Lords, can the Minister help me with at least this? When I first came to this Chamber, I was taught that the key quality of this House was to spot the slippery slope when it saw it. That has been absolutely true of the 20 years I have been here. Is it reasonable for this House to point out the slippery slope when it becomes obvious?

If that does become obvious, then of course it is noble Lords’ duty to bring it to the Government’s attention.

My Lords, to return to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, about the absence of Ministers on the “Today” programme, I think the “Today” programme has improved enormously. Without having a large number of interviewers interrupting Ministers all the time, it is now much better to listen to.

I take great encouragement from that, and I shall certainly pass my noble friend’s observation on to my colleagues.