How one defines the government’s relationship with the media has always been subjective. What one man views as a suitably close and seemingly open relationship, is another’s idea of disaster.
Prime Ministers have come and gone but one question has remained; how private should the public sector be? As politics becomes more embedded in modernity, the voices that ask this have only grown louder. However, after the recent press walkout at No. 10, the growing consensus is that the bond between the press and the government is in rocky waters.
While journalists waited inside the Downing Street foyer for the government’s recent Brexit briefing, it was announced by senior communications advisor Lee Cain that not all were welcome. Representatives from The Daily Mirror, The Huffington Post and The Independent, to name a few, were requested to stand on the other side of the room by security before being asked to leave.
This did not mark the start of a war on the press, rather, it was the latest assault in a conflict that appeared to have begun months ago. In previous months stories emerged on how the Prime Minister’s team were cautious when allowing ministers to appear on BBC 2’s Newsnight and BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Considering this was in the lead up to election day, however, this is easily attributed to electoral strategy rather than an attack on free press. Harry Cole, Deputy Political Editor for The Mail on Sunday, tweeted how this attitude is present on the Left and that Corbyn had previously handpicked interviews during the election, and at times ‘ran away from scrutiny’.
The Prime Minister and his team remain unmoved in their stance that this was not an attempt to silence dissent or shut the door on the press. A statement was released pledging its ‘commitment’ to an ‘open’ policy when it comes to the media.
Yet, what occurred next truly rocked the boat. When the invited journalists were encouraged to move into the briefing room, instead they collectively chose to leave, joining their industry opponents outside. In the face of the attempted muzzling of a selected group of reporters, it was, quite possibly, the perfect response from the rest of the pack.
Perhaps then when this collective solidarity remains, the picture is not as bleak as it first appears. Naturally, it’s important to maintain an element of perspective. At the end of the day, newspapers and news media outlets can play slave to economy, like any other industry.
In an effort to sell copies and boost readership, variations on the sentence ‘press boycott at No. 10’ makes for an attractive headline. This causes my concerns to ever so briefly subside. A glance at the wider global trend this boycott is a part of, however, does not.
In October last year, when Saudi Arabian journalist and columnist for The Washington Post Jamal Khashoggi was killed by agents of the Saudi government, outrage and anger echoed around the world. Yet, this uproar failed to translate into effective and real policy change when it comes to the international protection of journalists or the freedom of the press. The US sanctioned 17 Saudi officials, including Saud al-Qahtani, but this was seen as an empty gesture by many.
In The Globe and Mail, Canada’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, David Chatterson, writes how the traditional response of sanctions ultimately failed to alter behaviour. Promoting a more globalised and secure form of freedom of the press is the only way forward.
To add insult to injury, it seems Khashoggi’s final written column for The Washington Post pleaded for the recognition of the importance of free speech in the Arab World. While it was originally held offline in the hope ‘Jamal would come back’ to The Post, once the truth had emerged of the journalist’s death, the publication decided to publish the last column they had received from Khashoggi. An opening note from the Global Opinions Editor, Karen Attiah, introduced what was to be his final column, emotively stating how this was a ‘freedom he apparently gave his life for’.
So, closer to home what does this mean? An appreciation of the bigger picture remains important, but this decision by the Prime Minister does take a disturbing first step down a path that history has proved to be dangerous. Political leanings and affiliations must not be a conditionality of legitimacy when it comes to journalism.
The great irony of this debate appears to be that attempts to silence the press often seem to have the opposite than the desired effect. The sentiments of the government’s Brexit briefing in all likelihood would have been swept under the carpet had proceedings carried on as usual.
Now, concerns are being raised over the apparent secretive stance of Johnson and his administration. The slogan for The Washington Post expresses how ‘democracy dies in darkness’. At first glance, this sounds hyperbolic, yet it’s not. When governments target the press, democracy is caught in the crossfire.
More often than not, this blow only proves to be fatal. Journalism is and must remain to be, the pursuit and deliverance of the truth against all the odds. Obstruction to this, the boycott has proved, may not be as straightforward as the government may have anticipated.