Journalists walked out of a Downing Street briefing on Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans after the prime minister’s director of communications tried to restrict it to selected publications and broadcasters.
Among those boycotting the briefing were the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg and ITV’s Robert Peston.
Labour accused the prime minister of adopting the tactics of US president Donald Trump, who regularly excludes reporters who he regards as hostile.
An invitation sent out by No 10 offered a “technical background briefing” on the PM’s plans to negotiate a Canadian-style free trade agreement with the EU by the end of the year.
But when political correspondents from various outlets arrived inside No 10, they were asked their names and told to stand in two groups on opposite sides of the entrance hall.
Director of communications Lee Cain then invited those on one side to enter and told those on the other to leave.
Asked to explain why Downing Street was denying access to some publications – including The Independent – he replied: “We are welcome to brief whoever we want whenever we want.”
All of the correspondents refused to take part in the event on those terms and left No 10.
Cain refused to say how much taxpayers’ money was being spent on the planned selective briefing, which was expected to involve civil service experts including chief negotiator David Frost explaining details of the UK stance in the upcoming talks.
Shadow culture, media and sport secretary Tracy Brabin said: “Press freedom is a cornerstone of our democracy and journalists must be able to hold the government to account. It is concerning that Boris Johnson seems to be resorting to tactics imported from Donald Trump to hide from scrutiny.
“The future trade agreement with the European Union is an issue of great public importance and interest. Those gaining access to such important information should not be cherry-picked by No 10.”
It is not uncommon for politicians and their political special advisers to brief particular publications or journalists about their plans.
But it has long been the convention that briefings from politically neutral civil servants are conducted on a strictly non-partisan basis, with publications of all shades of opinion represented to ensure that readers and viewers are kept informed.
Concerns about No 10’s attempt to exclude selected publications from the briefing were raised in the House of Commons by Labour Brexit spokesman Paul Blomfield, who told MPs: “If the government is serious about bringing people together, we need reassurance that they will conduct the next stage of negotiations in an open and accountable way, and not by banning journalists from their briefings.”
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