News outlet threatens legal action over MoD ‘blacklisting’ as Europe issues media freedom alert

A media outlet has engaged a legal firm after it was effectively blacklisted by the Ministry of Defence – a move that prompted a ‘media freedom alert’ from the Council of Europe.

A media outlet is threatening legal action after the MoD press office refused to deal with the publication (Pic credit: Getty)
A media outlet is threatening legal action after the MoD press office refused to deal with the publication (Pic credit: Getty)

In its alert, the CoE said the UK Government’s actions regarding Declassified UK were having a “chilling effect on media freedom”.

The Government has not used its right of reply regarding the CoE’s alert.

The alert detailed how a journalist from the website contacted the MoD in August to request comment on the arrest of a serving soldier, who was protesting near Downing Street about “the UK’s involvement in Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen”.

The reporter was initially told by the MoD press office that a comment would be provided, and was asked: “What sort of angle have [the title] previously taken on the war in Yemen?”

Later that day, the reporter received an email telling him the MoD would not provide a comment and directing him to make a Freedom of Information request if he required further information.

However, the Telegraph newspaper ran the same story and was provided with a comment from the MoD, prompting Declassified UK to contact the press office again and seek an explanation.

The reporter was told: “We no longer deal with your publication,” but the press office declined to say why.

The editor of Declassified UK contacted the MoD to seek confirmation that it was now the department’s policy to blacklist the publication, but did not receive a response.

Legal action

Declassified UK has since engaged solicitors Leigh Day to represent it.

The firm wrote to the MoD asking it to explain its policy with regards to Declassified UK and warning that blacklisting a legitimate media outlet would be a “serious breach” of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which deals with freedom of expression.

Leigh Day’s letter to the department also warned that the actions of the MoD’s press team may be counter to its duties of impartiality and neutrality, set out in the Government Communication Service Propriety Guidance and the Civil Service Code.

The guidance states: “To work effectively, media officers must establish their impartiality and neutrality with the news media, and ensure that they deal with all news media even-handedly.”

Leigh Day said it had pressed the MoD for a response and was told the department was “looking into it”.

Questions in Parliament

In questions to ministers last week, Johnny Mercer, minister for defence, people and veterans, was asked whether he had “assessed the compatibility” of the MoD’s stance toward selected media outlets with its obligations under the Civil Service Code.

The minister replied: “The MoD engages with media outlets who report responsibly. We take care to consider the reputation and track record of all domestic and international publications as part of that commitment to openness and accuracy.”

Media relations

Political journalists have complained of selective briefing by the Government since the December general election.

In February a group of journalists arrived at Downing Street to attend a Government briefing by Boris Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator, former diplomat David Frost, only to be divided into two groups in the foyer of Number 10.

Some, including correspondents for The Sun and The Daily Telegraph, were told they could stay, while Downing Street director of comms Lee Cain reportedly told others, such as journalists from The Mirror and the Independent, to leave the premises – prompting both groups, including broadcast journalists, to walk out collectively.

A month later, when COVID-19 arrived in the UK, the Government was criticised for selectively briefing media outlets about its response to the crisis, prompting it to begin daily briefings fronted by ministers and scientists.

Meanwhile, the Government has refused to field a minister on the BBC's Newsnight since last year, or on Good Morning Britain for 134 consecutive days – according to the latter programme's co-host, Piers Morgan.

The MoD, the Cabinet Office – which has responsibility for the Government Communication Service – and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which has responsibility for media policy, were contacted by PRWeek, but either did not provide comment at the time of publication, or declined to comment.

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