Tory Minister’s Public Attack on journalist Who Asked Covid Questions Condemned For Undermining Press Freedom

Tory MP Kemi Badenoch

Attacks on political journalist are threats to your freedom.

Press freedom campaigners and the UK’s journalism trade union have raised concerns about the public attack made by a government minister on a HuffPost UK reporter for asking questions about her role in a Covid-19 vaccination campaign.

Last week, equalities minister Kemi Badenoch took to Twitter to accuse journalist Nadine White of “creepy and bizarre” behaviour for asking straightforward questions about why she had not appeared in a video.

White received abuse, and had to make her Twitter profile private, after Badenoch shared screenshots of two emails the journalist sent to a government press office asking why she did not participate in the cross-party clip.

The journalist was asking an appropriate question, which could have been answered politely in a one or two-sentence email. Instead, the Tory minister took to Twitter in an almost Trump-like fashion ‘Kemi Badenoch’ made outlandish bizarre and abusive claims aginst the Huffington Post journalist.

In her posts, Badenoch had said it was “creepy and bizarre to fixate on who didn’t participate in a video and demand they explain themselves”.

The Council of Europe’s Safety of Journalists Platform has identified the incident as a potential threat to media freedom and the safety of journalists as guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, in what could prove embarrassing for Boris Johnson’s government.   

Its website summarises what happened under the headline “Journalist Nadine White Smeared by Minister for Equalities”, and it expects the UK government to respond to the alert. The platform has in recent days also highlighted physical attacks on journalists in Russia and death threats received by a reporter in Cyprus following criticism of the government.

The Mapping Media Freedom website, run by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, has recorded the attack as a “violation of media freedom”.

Meanwhile, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) on Monday condemned the “weird” abuse faced by White as a result of Badenoch’s “petty” tweets. It came after Downing Street defended Badenoch as a “great” a minister who was being “civil” to White.

Downing street reaction

On Monday, Johnson’s aides defended Badenoch and said the Twitter attack on White was the result of a “misunderstanding between the two parties”. But the prime minister’s press secretary, Allegra Stratton, said the minister felt she had “grounds” for her public attack on White.

Quizzed over Badenoch’s actions, Allegra Stratton, Boris Johnson’s press secretary, said Badenoch had “been civil to Nadine White”.

Stratton was unable to guarantee that other journalists who send routine emails to departments would not see them publicised via Twitter, saying only that Downing Street did not object to media questions. “You know you can always come to Downing Street and we will treat your questions and your challenges, as we are doing now, as fair, and we will always try to get back to you, and give you decent answers.”

White’s emails had asked why Badenoch did not appear in the video campaign intended to encourage the take-up of the coronavirus vaccine among black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

HuffPost had not published a story connected to the questions before Badenoch tweeted to say it was because she was involved in a vaccine trial herself.

Stratton added: “She felt that questions about why she wasn’t in the video were not right when she was not in the video because she was taking part in a trial. This is a case of a misunderstanding between the two parties.”

Asked why Badenoch responded by publicising the journalist’s name and questions, Stratton said: “You’ll have to get comment from Kemi herself in terms of Kemi’s motive.”

Saying she had not talked to Johnson about the incident, Stratton appeared to defend Badenoch’s description of White’s actions as “creepy and bizarre”, saying: “I would go to the Cabinet Office and talk to Kemi Badenoch’s team. I believe that Kemi feels that she has grounds for those words.”

Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the NUJ, said: “Instead of condemning the unacceptable and uncalled for pillorying of a journalist simply doing her job, Number 10 has today dug in and defended a minister who should know better.

“Putting in questions to elected representatives is pretty standard journalistic practice and the response from Kemi Badenoch was frankly weird, completely out of order and an abuse of her privilege. As a result, Nadine has had to contend with a barrage of online and offline abuse and hostility.

“Elected representatives should be working to boost standards of public discourse, not indulging in petty outbursts that deepen hostility towards journalists and journalism.”

If journalists are intimidated and attacked either physically, verbally or other while conducting legitimate enquires into the actions of public officials and representatives it is not only an attack on free speech, it is a step towards tyranny.

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