The MoD comms team refused to provide Declassified UK with a statement for a story in August and told the reporter: “We no longer deal with your publication.”
The MoD’s chief operating officer, Mike Baker, has since written to solicitors Leigh Day, acting on behalf of Declassified UK, to apologise.
He said: “The Directorate of Defence Communications was wrong not to provide a comment to [Phil] Miller of Declassified Media Limited on the story about which he was enquiring.”
Baker said a review would be held into allegations that “the standards of the Civil Service Code and Government Communication Service Propriety Guidance have not always been met in the department, and to establish what underlies them”.
Statement to Parliament
The Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, made a statement to Parliament last week to announce an independent review into allegations that the MoD’s comms team did not meet GCS Propriety Guidance and whether the Civil Service Code was breached.
The GCS guidelines state: “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.”
Speaking to the House of Commons last week, Wallace said: “All Government media and communication professionals must abide by the Government Communication Service’s Propriety Guidance and the Civil Service Code. The Ministry of Defence is no different.”
He added: “However, I have been deeply concerned that those standards are alleged not always to have been met in the Department. I am treating the allegation with the utmost seriousness. The Ministry of Defence I lead will treat outlets with fairness and impartiality.”
Wallace said he had written to MoD comms professionals and asked Tom Kelly, former official spokesman for Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister, to conduct an independent review into the allegations and report back to the Commons.
It is not clear whether the full findings will be made public.
Media freedom alert
Declassified UK had sought comment on a story about 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 a MoD press officer that a comment would be provided and was asked what angle the title had previously taken on the war in Yemen.
The MoD then refused to provide comment, despite giving a statement to The Telegraph newspaper on the same story, and directed the reporter to make a Freedom of Information request instead.
When this was queried, the reporter was told: “We no longer deal with your publication,” but the press office declined to say why.
In its letter to Leigh Day, the MoD stopped short of conceding that a blacklisting policy had been in place or that it had been lifted, but it promised to “deal with all outlets, including Declassified, with fairness and impartiality” from now on.
The editor of Declassified UK, Mark Curtis, welcomed the developments.
He said: “We very much welcome the MoD’s apology and commitment to a review… A vibrant democracy demands that public officials cooperate with journalists acting in the public interest.”
The Council of Europe’s media freedom alert allows a right of reply from the named organisation, but the Government did not initially respond.
However, it has since stated: “The United Kingdom is a strong supporter of the Council of Europe’s extensive work on media freedom, from its comprehensive standards and legal guidelines to its important early-warning mechanism: the Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists. We take seriously and consider closely every media alert issued in relation to the UK.”
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