Without an Allegra to stand on: As the police undermine press freedom on the streets, Stratton joins in from the Number 10...

Allegra Stratton defended a minister harassing a reporter while Kent Police attempted to criminalise a photographer. Alexa, what are 'chilling effects'?

We have a government led by an opinion columnist — Boris Johnson was, until his elevation to the top job, arguably Britain’s highest-paid shoveller of half-baked reckonings, with a Telegraph salary of £275,000 for a single weekly contribution. But then the Prime Minister did famously dismiss those earnings as “chicken feed” when he was Mayor of London and still trousering Telegraph cash. He told the BBC’s HardTalk programme in 2009:

I happen to write extremely fast. I don't see why on a Sunday morning I shouldn't knock off an article, if someone wants to pay me for that article then that's their lookout… I think that frankly there's absolutely no reason at all why I should not, on a Sunday morning before I do whatever else I need to do on a Sunday morning, should not knock off an article as a way of relaxation.

Well, that’s fine. As long as he did a slapdash job of it…

There are, of course, other former journalists in the Johnson administration. Michael Gove started out at The Daily Telegraph before moving to the Press & Journal then doing stints on the BBC’s On The Record and Channel 4’s execrable current affairs/comedy hybrid A Stab In The Dark, before settling at The Times.

Like Johnson, becoming an MP didn’t stop Gove picking up the odd commission here and there. More recently he popped back to his old paper, The Times, to interview Donald Trump in an act of crawling sycophancy to both the President and Rupert Murdoch, who he still hopes might anoint him as the next Tory leader.

And then there’s Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park and Targeted Racism, who in his dilettante youth was made reviews editor of The Ecologist magazine by its owner… his uncle Edward. A year later, he was made Editor-In-Chief and Director of the title, showing just how far you can go through hard work and hard-won genetic connections to the owner.

I pick over the bones of these ignominious media careers because the government that Johnson leads and in which Gove and Goldsmith serve both encourages a climate of toadies and anonymous sources and actively tries to sabotage and suppress legitimate journalistic enterprise. The past week has thrown up two examples of the broken relationship between the state and journalism, though there are hundreds I could list from the past few years, particularly during the Dominic Cummings-era.

Last Thursday — as reported by Press Gazette — freelance photographer Andy Aitchison was arrested by Kent Police after covering a protest at the Covid-hit asylum centre at Napier barracks. When the police came to his home, around 7 hours after he had taken photos of a short protest at the Barracks, Aitchison showed them his NUJ press card and told them he was a member of the press. He says they told him it “doesn’t matter” before seizing his memory card and mobile phone.

In his interview with Press Gazette, Aitchison says:

“It feels a bit like I’ve landed in a similar situation to a lot of journalists and photographers and it’s just a bit of a crazy place to be. It seems to be a different person every couple of weeks at the moment so I guess it’s my turn…

It’s something I have never experienced before and something I never thought I would be experiencing just for doing my job. It feels like the way the press is being treated currently has gone up a gear or changed gear and it’s going in a very dark and serious direction.”

He believes the Police focused on him after seeing his pictures on the local news site Kent Live, where they carried his credit. He was arrested in front of his 9-year-old son and kept in custody for 7 hours.

Released on bail until February 22, the Police action has already meant that Aitchison, due to the conditions of that bail, was not able to cover the major breaking news story on Friday when a fire broke out at Napier.

Aside from Press Gazette, Aitchison’s story has only been covered by Kent Live, the site that originally published his photos, The Independent, The Guardian, BBC News (on its website) and The Canary. Papers like The Times, Daily Telegraph and Sun as well as magazines like The Spectator and websites like Spiked Online which purport to be extremely concerned about free speech remain curiously silent.

The seizure of Aitchison’s mobile phone and memory card should be particularly worrying for all journalists who report for a living. In 2012, the police tried to force Sky News, the BBC, ITN, freelance journalists, and documentary production companies to hand over footage of the eviction at Dale Farm. The High Court ruled that the police orders amounted to a “fishing expedition” for evidence and refused them.

Fran Unsworth, then-BBC News’ Head of Newsgathering, now its Director of News & Current Affairs, said at the time: “This is a significant ruling which reinforces the independence of news organisations from the police. Journalists must maintain their independence, must not be seen as evidence gatherers, and must not have their safety compromised.”

Well, 2012 feels like a very long time ago. In November 2020, the NUJ issued a statement following police harassment of journalists covering anti-lockdown protests. Michell Stanistreet, the union’s General Secretary, said:

It is alarming that numerous journalists covering the protest were told by officers that if they hadn’t received permission from the Met press office that they had no business to be reporting, and would be treated as members of the public taking part in an illegal gathering. This is patently untrue.

In discussions with the Met today, officers have assured the NUJ of their full commitment to the guidelines issued by the National Police Chiefs Council after the NUJ’s intervention earlier this year, and their agreement that bona-fide newsgatherers must be treated appropriately and allowed to do their work unimpeded.

It doesn’t seem as if that message reached Kent. In Reporters Without Borders annual press freedom index, the United Kingdom came 35th. And in September 2020, the Council of Europe warned about media freedom in the UK after it emerged that Ministry of Defence press officers had blacklisted the foreign policy and defence-focused outlet Declassified UK because the government does not like its perspective. Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office was also revealed by OpenDemocracy to be running a ‘clearing house’ designed to prevent Freedom of Information requests from ‘difficult’ journalists being answered.

I covered the second example of the government’s ‘variable’ attitude to the press at length last week:

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.

Since then, journalist turned prime minister’s spokesperson Allegra Stratton — also covered in earlier newsletters — defended Badenoch’s behaviour. Press Gazette reports:

…the Prime Minister’s press secretary, Allegra Stratton, said on Monday that the minister felt she had “grounds” for her public attack on the HuffPost reporter.

Stratton said the minister had been “civil” to Ms White.

“Kemi felt that she was working very hard to improve confidence in the black community in taking the jab and she felt that questions about why she wasn’t in the video were not right when she was not in the video because she was taking part in a trial,” she said.

While Stratton threw in some mollifying language about White being a “great young journalist asking questions of the government,” it’s clear that the line from the Johnson administration is that it’s fine for ministers to harass journalists that they don’t like.

Jess Brammar, HuffPost UK’s editor-in-chief and White’s boss, has complained to the Cabinet Office about Badenoch’s behaviour, asking for an apology and the allegations to be withdrawn. I fear she’ll be waiting for a long time.

The rhetoric from ministers and its outriders in the right-wing press will always lean heavily on “press freedom” and “free speech” but rather appropriately a government led by a man who hid in a fridge to avoid questions is actively committed to chilling effects that will continue to make actual journalistic endeavour far harder while the anonymous source wranglers and Boris boosters are helped every step of the way.

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Previously on Conquest of the Useless: I cunt believe it — If 'double cunting' king Paul Dacre becomes Ofcom's boss the Free Speech Union will cheer