LONDON - Press freedom is under threat in Britain, according to media groups that warn that the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson is fueling a growing climate of hostility and public distrust toward journalists.
Tensions between the government and the media have ramped up following recent newspaper revelations that the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, broke lockdown rules when he was ill with the coronavirus by driving several hundred miles to visit family members.
The government said it would not answer questions from the publications that broke the story, the Daily Mirror and the Guardian, and issued a statement saying the prime minister’s office would not ‘waste [its] time answering a stream of false allegations about Mr. Cummings from campaigning newspapers.” That is disturbing language, said Rebecca Vincent of the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders.
“What we’re seeing in the U.K. at the moment is an acceleration of a really hostile approach by this government towards the press,” Vincent told VOA. “Stopping short of saying ‘fake news,’ we’re seeing a very alarming narrative being created, sort of allegations that credible newspapers are campaigning newspapers and that serious public interest reporting can be dismissed.”
Johnson insists that the stories are wrong. "A lot of what was written and said over Saturday and Sunday was false in respect to my adviser; it wasn't correct,” Johnson told a committee of lawmakers this week. However, neither Johnson nor Cummings has produced evidence to refute the newspaper allegations.
The British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association have complained that certain journalists are being excluded from virtual government press conferences. “No administration that believes in a free media — and this government has repeatedly stood by that assertion — can then decide which media it will respond to and which not. The mark of a government that truly supports free media is one that steps up to the plate and answers questions from all sources, even those it believes to be politically hostile,” Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, wrote this week.
Vincent warns that the virtual format of press conferences is being exploited to evade scrutiny: “Journalists’ mics are almost always cut immediately after they ask their initial question, or even sometimes just the first part of that question, with follow-up questions rarely allowed.”
Vincent believes the British government is copying elements of the Trump administration’s approach in the United States.
“Just because we’re not seeing this same sort of ‘fake news, corrupt media’ precisely being said, it is, we think, the British way of getting at that same thing, which is really fueling public hostility towards the media as well and eroding public trust in media. It’s no coincidence that terms like ‘scum media’ are trending online at the same time as government officials are behaving in this way.”
The prime minister’s office did not respond to VOA requests for comment. The government has denied it is curtailing press freedom.