Downing Street has refused to apologise after Jacob Rees-Mogg used parliament to smear HuffPost UK journalist Arj Singh.
But No.10 did rebuke the Commons leader, by saying Boris Johnson would not have made the same comments.
Rees-Mogg on Thursday described Singh as “either a knave or a fool” and falsely accused him of “editing” comments made by foreign secretary Dominic Raab.
The government did not deny Raab had used the words, or suggest they had been doctored. HuffPost UK did not edit the recording that had been passed to us, and our article quoted it in full.
But Rees-Mogg, who is the leader of the House of Commons, on Thursday falsely accused Singh of “editing” the tape using a journalistic “cheat”.
And he said Raab’s words had been “shockingly distorted by low quality journalism”.
Labour has accused Rees-Mogg of an attempt to mislead parliament with the claims.
No. 10 distanced the prime minister from Rees-Mogg’s words on Friday, saying Johnson would not have made the same comments.
A Downing Street spokesperson 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 have made.
“These comments were made by Jacob Rees-Mogg and I’m confident that he can explain their intended meaning.”
The spokesperson declined to say whether Rees-Mogg would be told to retract the comments or apologise.
Downing Street was repeatedly asked to back up claims that the report or recording had “distorted” what Raab had said. No evidence was provided.
The government was also pressured over its hostility to the media, after comments from the National Union of Journalists’ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet.
The union also picked out previous comments made by equalities minister Kemi Badenoch, to former HuffPost journalist Nadine White, who claimed it was “creepy and bizarre” for White to have privately asked for comment on a story.
It also follows a report last week that health secretary Matt Hancock had described The Guardian as “a rag” in leaked WhatsApp messages.
Stanistreet said “this behaviour has to stop”, adding: “It beggars belief that government ministers are smearing and impugning journalists in this way, indulging in outrageous behaviour that demeans them and the offices they hold.
“This same government, including the prime minister and other ministers, have committed time and resources to tackling the growing problem of abuse and harassment which is compromising the safety of journalists across the UK.
“Yet here we have colleagues around the cabinet table 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.
“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.
“Our elected politicians should be committed to improving the parlous level of public discourse, not further polluting it. This behaviour has to stop, the government must get a grip and put its commitments to improving the recognition and value of journalists and journalism into practice.”