Head of civil service urged to intervene in Downing Street row with journalists
PUBLISHED: 09:56 04 February 2020 | UPDATED: 10:02 04 February 2020
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The head of the civil service has been asked to investigate the ‘deeply disturbing’ decision to order senior journalists from some of the UK’s major news organisations to leave before a briefing on Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans.
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The call for Sir Mark Sedwill to launch an inquiry came from Labour leadership hopeful Sir Keir Starmer, who warned that the actions of Johnson's political allies in Downing Street risked undermining the integrity of the civil service.
Selected journalists were invited to Number 10 for a briefing from the Prime Minister's chief Europe adviser David Frost on Monday, but correspondents from organisations who were not on Downing Street's hand-picked list also tried to get in.
The journalists excluded included outlets viewed as left-wing or critical of the government but the briefing was due to involve senior civil servants - who are politically impartial.
In protest at the treatment of colleagues from rival organisations, all the journalists present chose to walk out rather than receive the briefing.
A Number 10 source said the prime minister's Europe adviser David Frost was due to speak to "senior, specialist members of the lobby" - a so-called "inner lobby".
In his letter to the cabinet secretary, Sir Keir said: "The actions of the prime minister's director of communications, who is a political appointee, are deeply disturbing.
"I am concerned that they have undermined the civil service's ability to comply with its core values of integrity, objectivity and impartiality.
"Equally, banning sections of the media from attending important briefings about important matters of government is damaging to democracy."
He said the media's access to the prime minister's chief negotiator "should not be determined by political favouritism".
"I would ask that you investigate urgently this matter and provide assurance that such an incident will not happen again."
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A Number 10 source said: "We reserve the right to brief journalists which we choose whenever we wish to, and that is not something abnormal."
Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, called it a "dangerous step".
She said: "As ministers are now regularly refusing to be accountable for their actions by boycotting certain programmes and journalists, this represents another very dangerous step.
"Johnson's government must stop this paranoia and engage with all the press, not just their favourites."
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