MoD comms team ‘acted as if’ blacklisting policy existed, official review says

Individuals working in the Ministry of Defence comms team blacklisted a media outlet, contrary to government guidance, after they misinterpreted a comment by their former boss, according to a review commissioned by defence secretary Ben Wallace.

The MoD has apologised to Declassified UK for the behaviour of its comms team (pic credit: Getty)
The MoD has apologised to Declassified UK for the behaviour of its comms team (pic credit: Getty)

The review was launched in September in response to allegations by news website Declassified UK that the MoD press office had refused to engage with it as part of a policy of blacklisting particular media outlets.

The MoD’s refusal to deal with the site prompted the Council of Europe to issue a ‘media freedom alert’ and Declassified UK to seek legal advice.

This resulted in an apology from the MoD and the commissioning of the review, which was conducted by former Downing Street official spokesperson Tom Kelly and released yesterday.

It stated: “If substantiated, the allegation that a government department, or a section of it, acted in a partisan way would strike at the heart not just of government communications, but the core ethos of the Civil Service itself.”

While the review did not find evidence of a policy of “blacklisting”, it said: “Individuals within the Defence Communications Directorate acted as if there was such a policy and so for Declassified UK the end result was the same: they were not treated in the same way as other media outlets.”

This was “wrong” and “ran counter to both the Civil Service Code and the Communication Guidance”, according to the review.

Media outlet shunned

In July, an officer seconded to the MoD’s comms team suggested that Declassified UK should be included “on a list of organisations which the Department would not engage with, or rarely engage with, because it was not considered a reputable source of news”.

Although the review “found no evidence that such a list exists”, it described how the director of the defence comms directorate "said his department should not waste any time on Declassified because they were a hostile website, rather than a proper news organisation. If they called, he said, they should be told to submit a Freedom of Information request.”

Carl Newns, director of defence comms at the time, left the MoD last month. He told the review that “his comment was not meant to imply that the website should be blacklisted, nor that the principle of blacklisting was in any way acceptable”.

Instead, he meant “that his team should not expend a disproportionate amount of time answering questions from it, given that its audience was relatively small compared to the mainstream media, and that it had a clearly hostile agenda”.

However, the review found that “the rest of the Directorate interpreted his comment as a direction not to engage with Declassified”.

Some subordinates “thought that he had sanctioned a blanket ban and, with the benefit of hindsight, it is understandable that they reached that conclusion”.

The review found it “disturbing” that experienced comms staff did not challenge the direction they thought they had been given.

“It was only when the issue was elevated to a ministerial level that the full implications were seen, understood and acted on,” it said.

Recommendations

The review recommended that MoD comms staff be issued with copies of the Civil Service Code and the Government Communication Service Propriety Guidance. The principles of these documents should be discussed during daily meetings “to ensure that staff both understand the principles themselves and how they apply to their work”.

And the MoD’S chief operating officer should report to ministers every month on the comms team’s performance in “its duty to be impartial both on daily business and in the way in which it has referred cases to the FOI process”.

The review warned that those speaking on behalf of the MoD need to “understand the proper relationship between the State and the media in a democracy”.

Mike Baker, chief operating officer at the MoD, said: “I fully accept the findings of the report, and we are now in the process of taking forward its recommendations. I will ensure this is done at pace.”

Newns did not respond to a request for comment.



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