Two weeks ago, the treasury and equalities minister Kemi Badenoch published on her Twitter feed right of reply emails sent to her – and to government press offices – by a HuffPost journalist, Nadine White.
White had asked why she had not taken part in a cross-party video seeking to encourage vaccine take up among black communities. Badenoch claimed that the publication was seeking to “sow distrust”.
The minister – in the process of denouncing White on Twitter – gave a more than reasonable explanation. She is taking part in vaccination trials and did not want to give credence to the worst disinformation: that the virus is being “tested first” on black people.
It is clear that Badenoch’s actions were – at least to some extent – born of frustration at White’s previous coverage of her, which she felt was unfair.
I have lost count of the number of stories I have spiked because of a reply that showed information in a new light
The Tory MP for Harborough, Oadby & Wigston, Neil O’Brien, has written a blog on CapX in the minister’s defence.
It draws attention to perceived inaccuracies in White’s prior coverage of Badenoch, and also to a specific type of racism he says BME Conservative politicians face – in which they can be traduced as race traitors by mainstream figures both inside and outside parliament, without fear of repercussions.
“Whatever you think, there’s a context here that is worth people like me understanding,” he writes.
Such points are important, but constitute a poor explanation for the minister’s actions – not least because the blog makes them after some relatively unconvincing critiques of White’s reporting, raising complaints that, at the very least, should have been quibbled upon publication.
There is no doubt the strength of feeling on Badenoch’s side is real. Ministers are human and journalists always do well to remember that.
But White – who recently suffered the loss of her sister – has, according to her editor, faced a tidal wave of abuse as a result of the minister’s Twitter thread. This, in itself, is unprecedented as far as I know: whatever the merits of the website’s previous coverage of Badenoch, the reporter simply did not deserve this for asking a simple question.
I have never met White or Badenoch and have no personal interest in this row.
But the critical importance of a confidential right of reply process in the production of journalism is, in my view, simply not up for debate.
Whatever the wrongs of previous coverage about Kemi Badenoch, a dangerous precedent has been set by her actions
The reason is simple: it prevents disinformation. To breach it undermines a bedrock of our functioning, free, accountable press. I have lost count of the number of stories I have spiked because of a reply that showed information my team had been given in a new light. Likewise, the number of stories that have been improved, changed entirely, or made fairer, because of a thoughtful response.
This row has gone on long enough. No doubt it will eventually be forgotten. But before that happens the minister should delete her Tweets about White, there should be an apology, and efforts should be made for some kind of rapprochement. If the latter has to happen once the dust has settled, and away from the glare of social media interest, it might be all to the good.
I understand Westminster journalists have been told behind the scenes that what happened to White won’t happen to them. But assurances behind closed doors aren’t enough – and I’m likewise disappointed that the lobby has shown slightly less than total solidarity with a colleague from their trade.
Whatever the wrongs of previous coverage about Kemi Badenoch, and no doubt she feels there are many, a dangerous precedent has been set by her actions. This is at heart a simple question of maintaining behavioural standards, and all journalists should care.
Journalists can and should be held accountable for the work they publish – but that can only happen if they maintain the right to confidentiality in the process of producing it. This would be in politicians’ interests at least as much as it is in those of the journalists.
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