Downing Street has sought to distance Boris Johnson from Jacob Rees-Mogg’s verbal attack on a journalist, but declined to issue an apology.
No 10 said on Friday they were “not comments that the PM would’ve made,” but a spokesman chose not to rebuke the Commons leader.
Rees-Mogg abused the HuffPost journalist after he published a leaked video call of foreign secretary Dominic Raab telling officials the UK should strike trade deals with nations that do not meet European standards on human rights.
Under the protection of parliamentary privilege, Rees-Mogg called the website’s deputy political editor, Arj Singh, a “knave or a fool”, and accused him of “low-quality journalism” in widely-criticised comments.
A No 10 spokesman said: “The PM is a staunch believer in the value of the free press and the important role journalists play in our democracy.
“These are not comments that the PM would’ve made.
“These comments were made by Jacob Rees-Mogg and I’m confident that he can explain their intended meaning.”
But the spokesman declined to say whether Rees-Mogg would be told to retract the comments or apologise.
HuffPost UK editor-in-chief Jess Brammar accused the Commons leader of an “extremely troubling” smear against a journalist.
National Union of Journalists general secretary Michelle Stanistreet accused ministers of “acting like playground bullies, undermining the work of journalists, bringing their work into disrepute, and dishing out insults that are clearly designed to further inflame harassment and abuse online”.
She added: “It’s not acceptable to dismiss reporting you don’t like as fake news. It’s completely unacceptable to resort to insults and personal smears of journalists simply trying to get on with their job.”
On Thursday, Rees-Mogg claimed the foreign secretary’s comments had been “shockingly distorted by low-quality journalism”.
The Commons leader repeated a Foreign Office statement which claimed the audio containing Raab’s remarks had been “deliberately and selectively clipped to distort” them.
He told MPs: “If the journalist didn’t clip it himself, he ought to have known it was clipped. He is either a knave or a fool.”
Johnson, while a journalist, was sacked from The Times for making up a quote – he later claimed he “mildly sandpapered” the comment.
Shadow culture secretary Jo Stevens said there was “sadly a pattern with this Tory government of undermining the hard work of journalists who challenge them” while still claiming to support freedom of the press.
The exchange is the latest clash between a government minister and HuffPost.
Equalities minister Kemi Badenoch was widely criticised for accusing Nadine White of “creepy and bizarre” behaviour after the then-HuffPost reporter sent a standard request for comment to a government press office.