Trump has been lambasted by those interested in freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the 1st amendment for being very selective in which media outlets he allows into certain press briefings. Back in 2017, CNN, the BBC and the Guardian were barred access (amongst others):
The White House barred several news organizations from an off-camera press briefing on Friday, handpicking a select group of reporters that included a number of conservative outlets friendly toward Donald Trump.
The “gaggle” with Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, took place in lieu of his daily briefing and was originally scheduled as an on-camera event.
But the White House press office announced later in the day that the Q&A session would take place off camera before only an “expanded pool” of journalists, and in Spicer’s West Wing office as opposed to the James S Brady press briefing room where it is typically held.
Outlets seeking to gain entry whose requests were denied included the Guardian, the New York Times, Politico, CNN, BuzzFeed, the BBC, the Daily Mail and others. Conservative publications such as Breitbart News, the One America News Network and the Washington Times were allowed into the meeting, as well as TV networks CBS, NBC, Fox and ABC. The Associated Press and Time were invited but boycotted the briefing.
The present UK government, under the leadership of Boris Johnson, our very own Trump, has its own Steve Bannon – Dominic Cummings, the (libertarian) man who masterminded the Leave campaign, and about whom a TV docudrama was written (Brexit: A Very Uncivil War). The man is the mastermind behind the government’s strategising. To get a sense of Cummings, here are some of the things he has done:
- In March 2019, the Commons Select Committee of Privileges recommended the House issue an admonishment for contempt of Parliament after Cummings failed to appear before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiry into claims of false news during the referendum campaign.
- In November 2019, a whistleblower raised questions about Cummings’ interactions during his years in Russia; The Sunday Times reported that Whitehall was keeping certain government business from Cummings.
- Set up ‘spy network’ to stop Downing Street leaks.
- Branded by David Cameron as a “career psychopath”.
- Calling for an end to the BBC as we know it.
- Home Secretary at war with Dominic Cummings over his “Control Freakery”
- Like the Stasi, Cummings went through a Home Office aide’s phones and work and fired her himself, marching her out of No.10 with armed police. He was subsequently given even more power to hire and fire.
And so on. You get the picture.
One thing he got right was his comments about the Tory party:
On his appointment, The Guardian noted that at a conference in 2017 Cummings had argued that: “People think, and by the way I think most people are right: ‘The Tory party is run by people who basically don’t care about people like me'”; and that “Tory MPs largely do not care about these poorer people. They don’t care about the NHS. And the public has kind of cottoned on to that”.
So what has he been getting up to with regard to this Trumpist/authoritarian approach to press freedom? As The Guardian reports:
Political journalists boycotted a Downing Street briefing on Monday after one of Boris Johnson’s aides banned selected reporters from attending.
The confrontation took place inside No 10 after Lee Cain, Johnson’s most senior communications adviser, tried to exclude reporters from the Mirror, the i, HuffPost, PoliticsHome, the Independent and others from an official government briefing.
At a time of escalating tensions between Downing Street and the media, Labour accused Johnson of deploying Donald Trump-like tactics to avoid scrutiny.
The incident happened in the foyer of No 10 when journalists on the invited list were asked to stand on one side of a rug, while those not allowed in were asked by security to stand on the other side.
When Cain told the banned journalists to leave, the rest of the journalists decided to walk out collectively rather than allow Downing Street to choose who scrutinises and reports on the government.
Among those who refused the briefing on the UK’s trade negotiations with the EU were the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, ITV’s Robert Peston, and political journalists from Sky News, the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the Sun, the Financial Times and the Guardian.
The briefing was due to be given by government officials, who are meant to be politically neutral, but did not happen because of the walkout.
The tactics from No 10 echo those of Trump in the US, who has been known to try to exclude journalists from reporting on his activities, and represents an escalation of Johnson’s tensions with the media, which have been increasing in recent weeks.
Johnson’s communications team has banned ministers from appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, boycotted ITV’s Good Morning Britain, and declined to appear on Channel 4 since before the election.
Ministers have also been told not to have lunch with political journalists, and it was briefed at the weekend that Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s senior adviser, had established a “network of spies” to find out whether other special advisers were fraternising with the media.
The BBC in particular is braced for a coming battle with the government after Johnson signalled during the election that he would consider scrapping the licence fee. A thinktank run by Cummings in 2004 advocated an end to the BBC’s funding model and described it as a “mortal enemy” of the Tory party.
Broadcasters have also been unhappy that the prime minister’s Brexit day “address to the nation” was filmed by Downing Street rather than a crew from a TV network, as would usually be the case.
Some of Johnson’s recent hires as special advisers include those with specialisms in film production and photography, prompting speculation that he is increasingly intending to bypass the media. The prime minister has recently launched so-called “people’s PMQs” sessions in which he reads out pre-vetted questions and answers them himself in an attempt to speak directly to the public.
There is no doubt that this has Cummings’ fingerprints all over it. Press freedom is a cornerstone of democracy and this is yet another example of how democracy is being insidiously eroded by those who claim to champion it. This kind of stuff genuinely scares me as it is reflective of a general slip down what looks like a very slippery slope.
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