The Sun of all fears: The government has one law for its media pals and another for 'enemies'

The government helps The Sun flout the law while a minister abuses a journalist with impunity.

The Supreme Court’s ruling that Shamima Begum — who was groomed as a teenager before joining Islamic State aged 15 — is not allowed to return to the UK to fight the removal of her British citizenship, provided ample cover for a related story to be slipped out without much attention.

The Court of Appeal ruled in July that Begum should be allowed to appeal against the decision made by Sajid Javid while he was Home Secretary (and desperate to be seen as ‘tough enough’ to be the next Tory leader). A week before the judgement was made public, it was leaked to The Sun by government sources desperate to justify their decision and counteract the effect of the Court’s ruling.

Lady Justice King said, “There was a breach of the embargo which preserves the confidentiality of the judgement until the hand-down, the judgement having been circulated to parties on July 9. Either copies or the essential content of the judgement were disclosed, passed on, to The Sun national newspaper, in advance of the judgement being handed down on July 16.” The article was removed but the damage was already done.

What Lady Justice King referred to as a “very serious case of contempt” was passed to the Attorney General’s Office to investigate and, surprise, surprise, a department led by the highly ideological Suella Braverman did nothing. The news that the Attorney General would not be pursuing The Sun for contempt was slipped out under cover of the bigger Begum story.

On the same day, the Cabinet Office rejected out of hand a complaint about the Twitter tirade directed at the journalist Nadine White by the Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch. That incident — which I’ve covered here in two previous editions — was a brazen attack by a government minister on a journalist who was simply doing her job in a professional manner.

The Cabinet Office claimed that it didn’t need to investigate that complaint from White’s editor at HuffPost UK, Jess Brammar, because Badenoch published the tweets that claimed simply requests for comment were “creepy and bizarre” on her ‘personal’ Twitter account. It had sat on the complaint for almost a month.

The claim that Badenoch was tweeting in a personal capacity, from a ‘personal’ Twitter account is such a thin defence that you could store it in an empty After Eight mint packet. Badenoch’s Twitter bio reads:

Conservative MP for Saffron Walden. Treasury & Equalities Minister. For constituent queries, pls email providing home address

Wow, so personal.

The permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office wrote in a letter to HuffPost UK:

I note that the tweets were not issued from a government Twitter account but instead from a personal Twitter account. The minister is personally responsible for deciding how to act and conduct herself, and for justifying her own actions and conduct. As such, this is a matter on which the minister would be best placed to offer a response.

Badenoch’s office told White that the MP “has nothing further to add beyond what is included in the letter sent earlier today from Alex Chisholm to your editor”. That’s as close as a government department gets to saying, “Go fuck yourself.” Not that I wouldn’t put it past Badenoch to actually just say that.

Responding to the Cabinet Office, Brammar wrote for HuffPost UK:

It is cold comfort that we were not alone in mistakenly thinking that the minister’s verified Twitter account, in which she describes herself as “Treasury & Equalities Minister”, was in some way linked to her job…

… It is a little confusing that Kemi Badenoch published screenshots of messages sent to her professional address and the Treasury press office in a “personal” capacity. But it’s certainly a relief that, when she declared to her 39,000 followers that Nadine’s conduct was a “sad insight into how some journalists operate”, and accused HuffPost and Nadine of “looking to sow distrust”, she wasn’t speaking as a government minister – because these claims are not only unbecoming of a senior politician, but betray either an alarming ignorance of how the press fits into our democratic system or a cynical display of bad faith.

Most companies and certainly most media companies expect their employees to adhere to social media guidelines whether their accounts are corporate or personal but it appears government ministers now operate under far more relaxed terms, at least when it’s journalists they’re abusing.

Badenoch is meant to abide by the Ministerial Code which she, like all government ministers, was required to sign up to. Badenoch’s tweets — targeted, aggressive, and including the disclosure of private correspondence which wasn’t in the public interest — arguably breached the Ministerial Code in at least three ways. Specifically, the code says:

… harassing, bullying or other inappropriate or discriminating behaviour wherever it takes place is not consistent with the ministerial code and will not be tolerated.

But we know from the investigation into bullying by Priti Patel that the Prime Minister sees the Ministerial Code as more of an optional pamphlet that he can shove under the takeaway menus, it’s no surprise that a more junior minister like Badenoch can act appallingly with impunity.

If the Profumo Affair occurred under the Johnson administration, the minister wouldn’t resign. He’d put out a statement castigating the press for digging into his private life and then sail on regardless.

Shame, which never played much of a role in British public life but was at least present in a few individuals, has been eradicated. Whether it’s the mountains of corruption allegations towering over hyperactive puppy Matt Hancock and haunted Victorian music hall marionette Robert Jenrick, Priti Patel’s prolonged bullying of staff, or the Prime Minister’s horizontal ‘technology lessons’, nothing anyone in government does is deemed worthy of resignation or even censure. And lucky for them, the opposition now believes that opposing is the one thing the public definitely doesn’t want them to do.

On one hand, The Sun (along with The Daily Mail, The Times and The Daily Telegraph) are given government leaks on a daily basis. On the other, Michael Gove's Cabinet Office ‘Clearing House’ exists purely to frustrate Freedom of Information requests from journalists who are trying to uncover things that the government hasn’t already had splashed on the front page of The Daily Mail.

British governments have always had tame hacks that they can rely on to print what they want and when they want it out there but over the last almost 11 years of Tory (and Coalition) governments, the situation has degraded even further. That’s why on the same day we could witness The Sun being forgiven for contempt of court — enabled by the very government that forgave it — and a senior civil servant concluding that ministers can abuse journalists on social media so long as we all pretend their Twitter accounts are ‘personal’.

In Johnson’s Britain, there’s a ‘free’ press, it’s just that some of the press are a lot freer than others. Glory to the pigs, I guess.