UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, left, and US President Donald Trump. Picture: AFP/ SAUL LOEB
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, left, and US President Donald Trump. Picture: AFP/ SAUL LOEB

London — Deep inside 10 Downing Street on January 31, Boris Johnson picked up a small, hand-held gong and beat it, on the stroke of 11pm.

Surrounded by his closest aides and supporters, the British prime minister was marking a moment in history — the precise time at which the UK left the EU after almost half a century of membership.

Or was he? For journalists covering Johnson’s government — and their readers, viewers and listeners — it is impossible to know for sure. No reporters were present. Nor was any independent camera crew there to record his video address to the nation, which was aired via social media earlier that night.

Instead, government spin doctors controlled the entire process. The image of Johnson striking the gong was taken by his official government photographer. The speech was recorded by his staff, armed with a video camera, and then released to the public via his Twitter and Facebook accounts.

In sidelining the mainstream media, the British leader is following a pattern set by populists around the world.

President Donald Trump rails against US newspapers and most broadcasters, accusing them of “fake news” while making full use of his Twitter account as a hotline through which to put his case direct to the public. Italy’s Matteo Salvini has soared to the top of opinion polls thanks to his deft and unrelenting use of social media.

Since winning a historic majority in the UK election two months ago, Johnson has used his power to exert a new and tighter grip on the way his administration communicates with the public. His team is keen to ensure that it controls the premier’s message on digital media, replicating successes of the Tory election campaign, according to one person familiar with the plan.

As part of the reforms, the government’s digital media operation has been beefed up, an official photographer hired, and time made in Johnson’s schedule to answer public questions on Facebook once a week.

Meanwhile, conventional media briefings, interviews with flagship BBC shows, and private meetings between politicians and journalists have been cut back. The prime minister now finds himself accused of casting a chill over the freedom of the media to scrutinise his government.

According to Johnson’s allies, the decision to prioritise direct digital output over traditional coverage in newspapers, on television and radio, is simply a reflection of the changes in the way the public consume news. But for the UK’s journalists, as well as for his political opponents, Johnson’s steps to control his coverage are deeply worrying.

“Independent photographic coverage of the prime minister’s public activities serves a necessary democratic function,” said Natasha Hirst, from the UK’s National Union of Journalists. “The entire media industry must make a stand against such blatant and dangerous attempts to curtail press freedom.”

Professional provocateur

It is ironic that Johnson should find himself in this situation. He made his name and his fortune as a highly paid newspaper columnist and he has staunchly defended his right to say outrageous, and sometimes offensive things.

Among his most controversial statements was to describe Muslim women wearing a face veil as looking like “letterboxes”, gay men as being “bum boys”, and using the racist term “piccaninnies”.

“If you go through all my articles with a fine-tooth comb and take out individual phrases there is no doubt that you can find things that can be made to seem offensive,” Johnson said during a question-and-answer session on BBC television before December’s election. “I defend my right to speak out.”

Yet it seems the freedom of speech does not extend to Johnson’s own ministers or the journalists he used to count as colleagues. Privately, some of Johnson’s own senior officials are now terrified of being seen talking to reporters, afraid they will be suspected of leaking or briefing against the government. Some even ask for lunches or drinks to be moved to discreet locations away from the gaze of Johnson’s aides in Westminster.

Accountability

Yet when it comes to Johnson, perhaps more than other politicians, the role of the media in holding him to account is vital. He has faced questions over his trustworthiness since long before he stood to be leader. He was fired from one job in journalism for making up a quote, and dismissed from another in politics for failing to tell the truth to his boss.

Last week, the battle between Downing Street and the media burst into the open. A group of senior political journalists walked out of a briefing on Brexit in protest after Johnson’s aides tried for a second time to exclude reporters from certain newspapers and titles. The issue caused uproar in Westminster and provoked criticism in parliament amid claims that Johnson was eroding 200 years of access for journalists reporting British politics.

For decades, prime ministers have made use of the convention of briefing UK political correspondents in regular meetings. Johnson’s officials have reorganised these meetings and tried to hand-pick a select few reporters for privileged access to other briefings in the hope of securing more favourable coverage.

“Press freedom is a cornerstone of our democracy and journalists must be able to hold the government to account,” Tracy Brabin, Labour’s media spokesperson, said. “It is concerning that Boris Johnson seems to be resorting to tactics imported from Donald Trump to hide from scrutiny.”

Targeting BBC

Even culture secretary Nicky Morgan, who serves in Johnson’s cabinet, expressed unease over the row.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think it serves anybody for this debate to be continuing,” Morgan told an audience in London on February 5. “The best thing would be for the co-chairs of the press lobby here in Westminster to sit down with the director of communications to work this out.”

Yet Morgan herself was accused of stoking the campaign against the UK’s mainstream media outlets as she unveiled plans that could see the BBC’s funding model torn up. Johnson’s aides are privately furious with what they see as unfair coverage from some parts of the BBC, and have virtually banned senior ministers from giving interviews to its flagship Today radio show.

As a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, before he became prime minister, Johnson lamented what he saw as a growing culture of censorship, and championed the rights of journalists to speak unpalatable truths.

“We need to fight, gently, for free speech,” Johnson wrote in 2018. For Britain’s political reporters, the urgent task is to convince him to value the work he used to do.

Bloomberg 

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