These incidents are part of a long-growing climate of hostility to journalism here in the UK, emanating right from the top of Boris Johnson’s Downing Street.
We’ve experienced it first hand at openDemocracy. Last year our political correspondent, James Cusick, who has held a parliamentary lobby pass for decades, was told he was not permitted to ask questions at the daily COVID press briefings.
Cusick’s previous reporting for openDemocracy had exposed serious flaws in the COVID-19 testing regime. It had voiced concerns among doctors for the safety of critically ill children; and revealed hospital logs which support their fears. And it had highlighted the costly negligence battles the government is preparing to fight over NHS worker deaths.
The reason given for the refusal to permit him a question, even after senior colleagues at other outlets had pleaded his case? According to Johnson’s Downing Street: openDemocracy is not an award-winning news outlet, but a “campaigning” organisation.
It’s a political smear that Johnson’s Downing Street has deployed again and again. Why did No. 10 refuse to answer questions from The Guardian and the Mirror about his chief adviser Dominic Cumming’s infamous lockdown breach for many weeks? Well, these award-winning newspapers were “campaigning” outfits, too, apparently.
And it speaks to a wider culture of evasion that has flourished during the pandemic. As my openDemocracy colleagues have shown, COVID-19 has been used as a pretext to ignore or indefinitely delay responses to Freedom of Information requests – undermining an already-creaking system that is supposed to give journalists and citizens the tools to hold their leaders to account.
It has also provided an excuse to rush through controversial data deals with Big Tech: trading away the sensitive personal health information of millions of citizens to private spy tech firms, including one founded by a Trump-backing billionaire.
And, as a recent, damning report from the National Audit Office laid bare, it has opened the floodgate to ‘COVID cronyism’. Firms run by Tory donors or allies or other politically connected figures have been awarded massive contracts to deliver COVID services, from PR advice to PPE to the ‘failing’ Test and Trace system. (The last of which, in the words of the government’s own scientific advisers, had a ‘negligible’ effect on stopping the spread of the virus.)
Press freedom watchdog Reporters without Borders (RSF) has called out Johnson’s government for its “vindictive” response to media criticism of its handling of the pandemic. (The UK currently has the highest COVID death rate in the world.) RSF has warned that press freedom in the UK is being eroded.