Lobby and Media Briefings: Journalists' Access

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:12 pm on 4th February 2020.

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Photo of Tracy Brabin Tracy Brabin Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 1:12 pm, 4th February 2020

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this timely and important urgent question. The ability of the lobby to have access to briefings without favour is a long-standing tradition, and one vital to the health of a functioning democracy. Yesterday, certain publications were barred from a briefing on future trade deals with David Frost, the Prime Minister’s adviser on Europe. According to reports, when journalists from other news outlets arrived, the Prime Minister’s director of communications, a special adviser, said:

“Those invited to the briefing can stay—everyone else, I’m afraid, will have to leave.”

When challenged, he added:

“We’re welcome to brief whoever we like, whenever we like.”

The code of conduct for special advisers states that

“special advisers must not: ask civil servants to do anything which is inconsistent with their obligations under the Civil Service Code”.

On the David Frost briefing yesterday, will the Minister tell us who decided which journalists could attend and what the selection criteria were? If that decision was made by a special adviser, are they in violation of both the code of conduct for special advisers and the civil service code? Can she confirm whether civil servants were in attendance?

Sadly, yesterday was not an isolated incident; the Huawei briefing last week was exactly the same. I understand that that was given by Ciaran Martin of the National Cyber Security Centre, plus civil servants from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. So will the Minister tell us who decided which journalists could attend and what the selection criteria were? If that decision was made by a special adviser, are they in violation of both the code of conduct for special advisers and the civil service code? In addition, where is the reply to the letter to the Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill reported in The Times, as, apparently, he does not have “a problem” with this? Can the Minister confirm what the Cabinet Secretary’s advice is and whether he believes there have been breaches of the special adviser code of conduct in either case?

Finally, on 13 January the editors of those national newspapers, with the Society of Editors, wrote to the Prime Minister, but we still do not have the reply. When was it sent? Has it been written? The Government’s behaviour in these matters threatens the civil service’s core values of impartiality and objectivity. It also brings into question the integrity of future Government media briefings and the conduct of their special advisers, and it damages a free and vibrant press, which is central to this parliamentary democracy.