Priti blatant: Two tweets reveal the UK government's dangerously deranged approach to the media and scrutiny

Priti Patel throws red meat to the tabloids while Kemi Badenoch targets a reporter for simply asking questions.

I really began to worry about an even more dystopic future where Priti Patel is Prime Minister when the tabloids started referring to her on first name terms. When the tabloids have really taken a toxic character into their hearts they grant them a mononym — ‘Maggie’, ‘Boris’, ‘Nigel’, ‘Tommy’ — and suddenly Patel is ‘Priti’, a politician as baffled by human emotion as a Terminator, who smiles when she’s talking about punishing someone and fulfils the tabloids’ dream of ‘Thatcher but colder’.

Patel understands what the tabloids like — demonising immigrants, continually banging on about ‘our boys’ in the military and police, wrapping yourself in the flag, and unceasingly pursuing enemies (especially) foreign but also domestic — and knows that they will play a key role in her future leadership campaign. That’s why her response to a fire at the overcrowded, dilapidated and Covid ravaged Napier Barracks where 400 refugees are housed was pure fascist rhetoric, jumping to conclusions even before any investigation had been undertaken:

For Patel, the problem was not that human beings are being kept in atrocious conditions but that property had been damaged. The phrase “deeply offensive to the taxpayers of this country” is designed to hit the g-spots of the most racist Sun and Daily Mail readers who constantly boil over at the thought of their taxes being used to do anything but pay for more military spending and/or improve roads (weirdly many racists are obsessed with potholes).

Tying the Napier site to its past use (“This site has previously accommodated our brave soldiers and army personnel…”) is about painting those who are crammed into the buildings as ungrateful, and ignores the fact that the buildings are old and were not designed to house so many people who are not allowed to leave.

Patel knows that and with her history of prejudicing investigations, she also knows she shouldn’t prejudge the causes of the fire. But the opportunity to spin the event as the act of ‘ungrateful immigrants’ was too good to miss and plays into her plans to ‘fix’ the asylum system by making it as inhuman as possible.

It’s as if Moff Tarkin blamed Alderaan for failing to get out of the way of the DeathStar’s planet-killing laser and castigated ungrateful Wookies for being unhappy with the pits they’d been thrown into: “I am fixing our broken galactic system and will be bringing forward plans later this year to deliver more terrifying space stations that are categorically not moons.

Patel’s statement has worked, of course, providing lots for The Sun to chew on. It headlines its story with ‘'DEEPLY OFFENSIVE' Napier Barracks fire – Blazing riots at migrant camp after ‘Covid row’ as Priti Patel slams ‘appalling’ destruction” and opens its reporting like this:

A HUGE fire has broken out at an ex-army camp in Kent where around 400 migrants are being held.

Unrest at Napier Barracks in Folkestone is understood to have started when some migrants were relocated after testing positive for Covid - leading to others demanding to be moved out too.

Notice the tactical use of ‘migrants’ with its implication that no one at the camp is an asylum seeker with a valid case. The bulk of the piece is taken up by Patel’s statement with details about conditions in the facility left to much further down the page:

Residents, many of whom have crossed the English Channel in small boats, have described it as "unbearable" and say social distancing in the barracks is impossible.

There have been reports of suicide attempts and earlier this month many residents went on hunger strike in protest at the conditions, which reportedly include 34 people sharing one shower.

A petition to shut down the site, along with a similar facility at a barracks in Wales, has amassed more than 10,000 signatures.

A spokesman for the Kent Refugee Action Network said: "We don't yet know exactly what has happened but what we do know is the barracks are unsafe with many cases of Covid being confirmed, and positive cases sharing dorms with those who had tested negative.

"Those inside were at risk and becoming more and more desperate at the lack of action.

"It should have already been emptied and closed down.

"Had the Home Office heeded the calls to act urgently we would not be in this position now.

By providing the tabloids with a suitably aggressive statement, Patel has been able to push the story onto the actions of potentially one desperate person and away from the systemic abuse being perpetrated by the government, which was repeatedly warned about conditions at Napier Barracks.

The Daily Mail/MailOnline go with the social headline, Priti Patel slams migrants as fire breaks out at Napier Barracks, though the headline on the piece when you click through reads Police launch arson investigation as migrants set fire to Kent army barracks 'after being told they would no longer be transferred to hotels after Covid outbreak' - as Priti Patel calls incident 'deeply offensive'. Like The Sun, The Mail leans heavily on Patel’s statement writing:

Priti Patel last night slammed the behaviour of migrants being held at a former army barracks, amid reports that a 100-strong group started a riot, torched buildings and threatened staff at the temporary asylum seeker site.

The Home Secretary strongly condemned the unrest at Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent, and police launched a probe after the disturbance, which reportedly broke out when migrants were told they would no longer be transferred to hotels following a Covid outbreak.

Ms Patel described the behaviour of those involved as 'deeply offensive to the taxpayers of this country' and said it was an 'insult' to suggest the site, formerly home to British soldiers, was 'not good enough' for asylum seekers.

Again, it’s not until much later in the story that context is given about the true desperation of the conditions at Napier or that a statement from the police saying the event is not being treated as “a riot” is included:

Officers believe the fire was started deliberately but added the incident is not being treated as a riot.

Detective Chief Superintendent Andrew Pritchard said: 'We are carrying out inquiries and working with partners including the Home Office and Kent Fire and Rescue Service to establish the circumstances surrounding this serious incident and the identities of those who may have been involved.

'Whilst the exact nature of the disturbance and any potential links to the fire are still being investigated, it would be inaccurate to refer to the disturbance as a riot and it is not being treated as such. There have been no arrests but inquiries are ongoing.' 

Notice the word ‘believe’? The police haven’t come to any conclusions, but Patel was ready to stand as judge and jury within minutes of the news breaking. Why? Because she saw the opportunity to distance the Home Office from the blame and to strengthen her case for a more barbaric asylum system. Hence The Mail story being liberally-sprinkled with further quotes from Home Office sources.

Earlier in the day, before Patel went full T-1000, another minister, Kemi Badenoch, provided an example of the government’s approach to journalists who are less malleable than their tabloid colleagues.

Nadine White, a reporter the Huffington Post, sent two polite but insistent enquiries to Badenoch, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Equalities, and the press team at the Government Equalities Office, asking why the politician hadn’t appeared in a cross-party video encouraging Black communities to have the Covid-19 vaccine.

Badenoch and her team didn’t reply to either email. Instead, she published both on Twitter, called out White, and implied that the journalist (who had not published any story on Badenoch’s involvement or otherwise with the video) was engaged in sowing “confusion and mistrust”. She knew exactly what she was doing — aiming for a pile-on against White and to strengthen distrust in journalists in general — but by publishing the emails she also inadvertently made it clear that she had made an unwarranted attack on a woman just doing her job.

Jess Brammar, the Editor-in-Chief of HuffPost UK, replied directly to Badenoch…

… and others, including me, were quick to note that the politician’s intention was to dissuade journalistic enquiry:

It’s no surprise that junior figures in the government like Badenoch — who is tipped for higher office in a forthcoming reshuffle — should treat journalists this way. Michael Gove, himself a former journalist, has built a ‘Clearing House’ at the Cabinet Office which directs Whitehall departments on how they should (or should not) respond to Freedom of Information requests and, furthermore, gives them ‘briefings’ on individual journalists.

The existence of the unit was revealed by OpenDemocracy, which is working on a legal case to force the Cabinet Office to reveal further details on how the operation works. FOI requests are supposed to be ‘applicant-blind’, i.e. the identity of the person making the request should have no bearing on whether it is answered or what information is shared.

OpenDemocracy discovered that government departments and non-departmental public bodies were kicking ‘sensitive’ FOI requests from journalists and researchers up to the ‘Clearing House’. Lists of those whose requests were subjected to ‘extra scrutiny’ included reporters from The Guardian, The Times, the BBC and OpenDemocracy itself, as well as researchers at Big Brother Watch and Privacy International.

This is the Janus-faced media management policy at work within the government. Tabloids, certain broadsheet correspondents (Shipman, Swinford, and Hope among the most prominent), and favoured broadcast journalists get tidbits dropped into their eager mouths while others who are less amenable to the government line run the risk of being blacklisted or publicly-barracked.

Those journalists, reporters, and editors who run interference for the government, credulously repeating its lines in print, on the radio and in TV broadcasts, are as guilty as the ministers who monster actual journalists for doing their job.

Badenoch’s brass neck in accusing a conscientious reporter of ‘disinformation’ simply for emailing the press office with a query should be all of the newspapers today, but it won’t be. Because far too many people in the profession are more interested in coddling their sources than actually speaking truth to power, which they harp on about so much. Instead, Patel’s words will be repackaged, reshaped and amplified regardless of the facts.

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