Press freedom campaigners and the UK’s journalism trade union have raised concerns about the public attack made by a government minister on a HuffPost UK reporter for asking questions about her role in a Covid-19 vaccination campaign.
Last week, equalities minister Kemi Badenoch took to Twitter to accuse journalist Nadine White of “creepy and bizarre” behaviour for asking straightforward questions about why she had not appeared in a video.
White received abuse, and had to make her Twitter profile private, after Badenoch shared screenshots of two emails our journalist sent to a government press office asking why she did not participate in the cross-party clip.
The Council of Europe’s Safety of Journalists Platform has identified the incident as a potential threat to media freedom and the safety of journalists as guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, in what could prove embarrassing for Boris Johnson’s government.
Its website summarises what happened under the headline “Journalist Nadine White Smeared by Minister for Equalities”, and it expects the UK government to respond to the alert. The platform has in recent days also highlighted physical attacks on journalists in Russia and death threats received by a reporter in Cyprus following criticism of the government.
The Mapping Media Freedom website, run by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, has recorded the attack as a “violation of media freedom”.
Meanwhile, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) on Monday condemned the “weird” abuse faced by White as a result of Badenoch’s “petty” tweets. It came after Downing Street defended Badenoch as a “great” a minister who was being “civil” to White.
Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the NUJ, said: “Instead of condemning the unacceptable and uncalled for pillorying of a journalist simply doing her job, Number 10 has today dug in and defended a minister who should know better.
“Putting in questions to elected representatives is pretty standard journalistic practice and the response from Kemi Badenoch was frankly weird, completely out of order and an abuse of her privilege. As a result, Nadine has had to contend with a barrage of online and offline abuse and hostility.
“Elected representatives should be working to boost standards of public discourse, not indulging in petty outbursts that deepen hostility towards journalists and journalism.”
On Monday, Johnson’s aides defended Badenoch and said the Twitter attack on White was the result of a “misunderstanding between the two parties”. But the prime minister’s press secretary, Allegra Stratton, said the minister felt she had “grounds” for her public attack on White.
On Friday, Badenoch went on Twitter to complain that White had sought to “sow distrust by making up claims I refused to take part in a video campaign” after being asked about her non-appearance.
The minister suggested White’s actions undermined efforts to build confidence in the coronavirus vaccine programme, saying “chasing clicks like this is irresponsible” and it was “creepy and bizarre to fixate on who didn’t participate in a video and demand they explain themselves”.
Badenoch said on Twitter that she had not taken part because she was participating in a vaccine trial.
Stratton said the minister had been “civil” to White.
“Kemi felt that she was working very hard to improve confidence in the Black community in taking the jab and she felt that questions about why she wasn’t in the video were not right when she was not in the video because she was taking part in a trial,” she said.
White is a “a great young journalist asking questions of government, she must continue to do that”, while Badenoch is “a great minister who is also doing her utmost to improve confidence in the vaccine amongst a community that is – right now – concerned and worried about taking it”.
Asked whether the minister would face disciplinary action over her comments and publication of private correspondence, Stratton said: “I believe that Kemi feels that she has grounds for those words.”
HuffPost UK editor-in-chief Jess Brammar tweeted in response on Friday: “You will note that, contrary to your claim we were spreading disinformation, we have not published this story without your response.
“I totally refute the claim it is ‘creepy and bizarre’ to ask questions of a government minister, and Nadine was doing her job in asking them.”
She later added: “One of my reporters has had to make her Twitter profile private today because a *government minister* tweeted out screenshots of a completely standard request for comment on a story, and accused her of spreading disinformation. Absolutely extraordinary.
“Young, female, black journalists receive some of the worst abuse on Twitter, and to behave in this way is extremely disappointing – even before you consider that the person involved is the minister for equalities.
“We stand by Nadine for doing her job correctly, as she always does.”