Suella Braverman Jets the 'Friendlies' to Rwanda
The Home Secretary's exclusion of news outlets which actually attempt to scrutinise her plans to deport refugees to Rwanda, is a dangerous step towards a wholly compromised media.
News that the Guardian, I newspaper and other centre left publications have been excluded from accompanying the Home Secretary on a trip to Rwanda has caused a fair bit of anger this weekend among those publications affected.
According to the Independent’s Home Affairs Editor, Suella Braverman refused to allow these outlets to attend and has instead been “accompanied by media representatives from outlets including GB News, the Daily Mail, Times, Express and Telegraph.”
This latter group of news organisations form part of what Downing Street refers to as “the friendlies” or sometimes “the friendlies pack”. As the name implies, these are news organisations that can generally be trusted to be “friendly” to the Government, and are therefore rewarded with additional access.
In some ways this is nothing new. Government’s of all colours have always given preferential treatment to those journalists and publications most willing to toe the official line.
However, the exclusion of so many major publications from a taxpayer-funded trip does mark a particular ramping up of the Government’s efforts to marginalise any news organisation which still believes its job is to actually hold them to account.
These efforts have been gradually increasing over recent years.
One good example of this is political press conferences. When I first entered the profession, these were generally open events in which any journalist who attended could ask a question. Even as late on as 2016, I was able to attend press conferences in which I could put questions directly to the then Prime Minister Theresa May.
However, in recent years, such openness came entirely to an end and now press conferences held by both the Government and the opposition are mostly for show, with the politician chairing the events only taking questions from a list of pre-approved outlets.
Whether or not individual questions themselves are pre-approved (and there have been attempts in the past to make news organisations agree to this) the fact that only approved news organisations are called to ask a question, inevitably has an impact on how tough those questions will be.
This is clearly very bad for journalism and democratic accountability, but at no point has there ever been a serious collective attempt by news organisations to put a stop to it.
Similar attempts to exclude critical outlets also took part at last year’s Conservative Party conference, when several critical outlets, including Tortoise Media and Joe were blocked from attending. Fees for journalists attending were also brought in for the first time. Again, there was no real collective attempt by other news organisations to challenge any of this.
There have also been other attempts by the Government to create two tiers of access for news organisations. Under Boris Johnson there was an attempt by Downing Street to exclude some accredited journalists from regular official briefings. This was eventually defeated after a degree of collective action by newspaper editors.
It should go without saying that this is not a good thing. If politicians are allowed to decide which journalists can and cannot ask them questions, then we are heading down a dangerous and anti-democratic path.
However, such attempts can and must be challenged. Here’s how it should be done.
Call it out. If journalists stay silent about such tactics then matters will only get worse. All news organisations, whether they be inside or outside the “friendlies pack” need to be vocal about what is happening. It is only by highlighting the Government’s attempts to evade scrutiny, that they can ever be pressured into changing course. Indeed, while we have heard from some of those organisations excluded this weekend, we heard nothing from those outlets when Byline Times were banned by the Rwandan Government from covering the deportation scheme.
Collective action. If calling the Government’s actions out doesn’t work by itself, then there needs to be collective action by news organisations to put a stop to it. It is no good for journalists at “friendly” outlets to simply pocket their passes to Kigali and hope they won’t be similarly excluded in future. By attending such events, these news organisations are actively encouraging such exclusion to continue and ultimately get worse. It is only by refusing to attend, that such practices will ever be reversed.
End Access Journalism
However, such attempts, even if challenged, are likely to continue. As long as political journalism is largely based on securing and maintaining access to Government, then it will always be in the interests of said Governments to place limits and conditions on that access.
Ultimately, the only long-term solution is to move away from a form of journalism which relies so heavily upon maintaining access. While a degree of access will always be necessary, too much reliance upon it inevitably leads to the sort of corrupt relationships between news organisations and politicians that have now been so publicly exposed at the BBC.
Thanks to the Guardian, and its decision to publish internal BBC communications , these relationships are now finally starting to get the sort of widespread attention they really deserve.
As I have written before, relying so heavily on access to power will always inevitably lead to what my colleague Peter Oborne has dubbed ‘client journalism’. As Oborne put it, “the price of privileged access and favourable treatment is turning readers and viewers into dupes.”
However, it is not just readers who are duped by such relationships, but those involved in them.
Because, while allowing for robust accountability helps news outlets do their jobs, it also ultimately helps Governments themselves too. The less open a Government becomes, the more corrupt and dysfunctional it inevitably becomes too. It is no accident that Boris Johnson’s deeply dishonest and opaque government was also one of the UK’s shortest-ever lasting. Closed governments are generally ineffective governments and there have been few governments which more perfectly illustrate that than those we have endured over recent years.
Yet so corrosive have these practices become, that we are unlikely to see an end to them, even when the current government is inevitably replaced. Already the opposition is mimicking at least some of the practices I have outlined above and will no doubt continue to do so once they take their own turn in Government.
For this reason it has never been more important to actively support those journalists and news organisations which still actively refuse to play along with any of this.
It is only by doing so that we can hope to build a better media, and ultimately a better democracy too.
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