Reporters are being shut out in London as well as Washington
Posted February 4, 2020 12:40 p.m. EST
CNN — An attempt to exclude select UK political reporters from an official briefing has led some journalists to accuse the British government of resorting to tactics used by President Donald Trump to punish the media for critical coverage.
Several publications were prevented from attending a briefing at the offices of Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday, prompting journalists from leading UK networks and newspapers to walk out, an act of solidarity that follows skirmishes between Johnson and the media on the campaign trail in December.
The increasingly strained relationship between journalists and the prime minister, and the response of his government, has drawn comparisons to the approach used by the Trump administration to penalize outlets and individual journalists for coverage it considers unfair.
Johnson, a former journalist for The Telegraph, refused to participate in one of the major television debates of the general election campaign, ducked an encounter with one of the country's premier political interviewers and prevented a reporter from one left-leaning newspaper from traveling on the campaign bus. UK government ministers have also boycotted the BBC's flagship morning radio program following the election, reportedly because of how it covered the campaign.
Trump, meanwhile, frequently dismisses critical coverage as "fake news," refuses to grant interviews to media outlets he dislikes and seeks to restrict their access to government and campaign events. His administration has not held a press briefing in months.
Just on Monday, the Trump campaign removed a Bloomberg reporter from an event and the White House excluded CNN anchors from a traditional briefing ahead of the State of the Union.
Tensions flared in London this week when a select group of reporters was invited to a briefing in Downing Street about the United Kingdom's future relationship with the European Union, a subject of vital importance following the country's legal exit on Friday.
Several journalists from other outlets, who say they had previously been invited to such briefings, also showed up. They were granted entry into the government offices but told they were not able to attend the briefing, according to several accounts from reporters who were denied access.
Reporters from the Financial times, The Sun, The Telegraph, the BBC, Sky News, the Daily Mail and the Guardian were among those invited in, while their colleagues from The Mirror, The I, The Evening Standard, HuffPost and other publications were shut out.
In a rare moment of solidarity for the British press, all of the reporters chose to walk out of the briefing in protest. "I can safely say that in 22 years of being a political journalist, I've never experienced a day like today," tweeted HuffPost UK's political editor Paul Waugh.
It's common for select groups of political journalists to receive briefings. But reporters said that Monday's briefing was to be delivered by senior civil servants, permanent government employees who are meant to remain impartial when it comes to politics.
Adam Boulton, a political anchor at Sky News, congratulated his colleagues in a Twitter post for "standing firm against Number 10's Baby Trumpism."
The UK government did not respond to a request for comment from CNN Business. But Downing Street communications director Lee Cain told The Independent, "We are welcome to brief whoever we want, whenever we want."
The move to restrict access to the briefing came after Johnson's team moved the location for daily government briefings from parliament to Downing Street. The Telegraph's chief political correspondent Christopher Hope, who led the group of journalists who cover parliament at the time of the change, warned colleagues then that it would allow "the current or any future administration to refuse access to journalists it may not approve of, which would be damaging to the freedom of the Press."
Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said in a statement that the government's actions on Monday "represent another very dangerous step" and that "ministers are now regularly refusing to be accountable for their actions by boycotting certain programmes and journalists."
"Johnson's government must stop this paranoia and engage with all the press, not just their favorites," she added.
Some observers argued that Johnson's tactics don't quite rise to the level of Trump. Instead, they reflect a traditional battle between the media and the government.
Charlie Beckett, a media professor at the London School of Economics, said the UK government is acting in a "Trumpian" manner, "in that there are elements of this anti media playbook and an element of trying to provoke a reaction" in its behavior.
"I think it's interesting and does reflect the tension and the fact that this is a new administration that is like all the others, desperately trying to get the upper hand in the eternal struggle between the [press] and Downing Street," he said.
Some journalists said they were most surprised by the show of solidarity by a group of reporters who compete aggressively for scoops.
"What's interesting is that publications that used to be happily complicit are joining the resistance," said one former British political correspondent. "The rewards for complicity are declining because the things this No. 10 now gives its favored outlets are of less value than the goodies given out by previous administrations."