by Mark Curtis, Declassified UK, 11 December 2020
A UK government review into how the Ministry of Defence (MOD) handled relations with the organisation I edit, Declassified UK, concludes the MOD “did not have a policy” of blacklisting us, despite providing evidence that it did. It reveals a deep problem in UK governance – that Britain is more oligarchy than democracy.
The review, published on Monday, notes that the director of defence communications – who manages the MOD’s press office – told his staff they “should not waste any time” on Declassified because it was “a hostile website, rather than a proper news organisation”.
“If they called,” the director said, “they should be told to submit a freedom of information request.”
If this is not blacklisting, I don’t know what is. Indeed, it was understood as such by other MOD media staff who believed their director had “sanctioned a blanket ban” on giving any comment to Declassified, the review notes.
It was for this reason that on 25 August our staff reporter Phil Miller was told by an MOD press officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Wade: “My understanding from the office is that we no longer deal with your publication.”
Miller was working on a story about the UK’s role in the Yemen war, about which Declassified has recently revealed more than the rest of the entire UK media combined.
Although the review claimed there was no policy of blacklisting Declassified, it concluded that, “The end result was the same: they were not treated in the same way as other media outlets.”
In parliament, defence secretary Ben Wallace, who ordered the review, said he accepted the report’s findings that there was no policy of blacklisting. He stated that “on one occasion individuals acted if there was such a policy. This was wrong and on behalf of the department I apologise.”
In fact, there were a string of occasions – as Declassified told the review.
After the MOD’s communications director told his staff not to engage with Declassified, our reporters were from late July this year unable to obtain comment from the MOD press office for an exclusive story about the British army giving intelligence training to spies from repressive regimes such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
There was also no response to requests for comment on stories about UK military training of security forces in Hong Kong and Belarus, even though the MOD gave quotes to the Independent and Observer for similar stories.
The review makes clear that the blacklisting was only discontinued when “the issue was elevated to Ministers”. Wallace was clearly annoyed by the affair and appears to have come down heavily on his staff – for which I commend him.
But why not a simple admission of blacklisting?
Breaking the law
One reason is that such a policy would be unlawful. Our lawyers, Leigh Day, wrote to the MOD in September, telling it that a failure to impart information to a media organisation would breach Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
It would also breach the Civil Service Code which tells public officials: “You must not: act in a way that unjustifiably favours or discriminates against particular individuals or interests.”
Now we learn that the MOD’s director of communications – who is not named in the report, but it is Carl Newns, a former deputy head of counter-terrorism at the Foreign Office – left his post after five years last month, just before the publication of the review into his actions.
Is this a coincidence? Newns, far from being publicly held to account, is now reportedly working in the Cabinet Office, focusing on government “communications” relating to Covid-19.
The underlying issue is that government press officers are not used to dealing with journalists serious about investigating UK foreign and military policies. Newns did, however, have luncheons with journalists from The Times and Telegraph who are known to report MOD policies favourably, his record of hospitality shows.
Despite appearances, the UK national media is simply not independent and usually barely even tries to reveal what British governments are doing around the world.
Occasional articles critical of aspects of UK policies appear in the press but are few and far between. They tend either to be on relatively minor issues or if not, are quickly forgotten once published.
Numerous UK foreign policies which are key to Whitehall – such as the UK’s extensive current support for the Egyptian military regime, Israel or Oman – are barely covered at all.
One journalist, who used to work for the Telegraph, told Declassified that when he made freedom of information requests about foreign or defence policy, government departments would call his editors to ask whether the paper really wanted to pursue such issues or would otherwise threaten to prevent publication.
British “mainstream” journalists seem to think their primary job is to hold officially designated enemies, such as Russia or China, to account, rather than their own government.
While the British press regularly covers stories critical of Putin, often justifiably, it can barely even mention the role the Royal Air Force plays in maintaining the Saudi war machine that has been bombing Yemen for five years.
Neither does it trouble the British public with reminders of the covert war Britain fought in Syria for years after 2011, alongside its US and Arab allies, which prolonged the conflict and contributed to terrible humanitarian suffering – despite hundreds of articles on Syria.
There is also largely silence on the fact that the UK’s disastrous military intervention in Libya, which nearly destroyed the country, fuelled the spread of terrorism to 14 countries, including the UK itself.
Many government policies are regularly dressed up or sanitised by journalists to convey the notion, pushed by policy-makers, that Britain acts as a “force for good” in the world.
Declassified recently revealed in statistical analysis that Britain’s national press consistently portrays Britain as a supporter of noble objectives such as human rights and democracy and that the public is routinely being misinformed about the UK’s foreign policies – such as Whitehall’s deep and systematic support for dictatorships in the Middle East.
This is the key reason Declassified was established last year. Our willingness to report independently and challenge, rather than amplify, official narratives, is why we have already gained so many readers and supporters.
By contrast, so many British “journalists” often literally cut and paste MOD media releases that government press officers have probably got used to it and have been taken by surprise by Declassified‘s serious journalism.
Many people in Britain are increasingly aware that national news organisations do not just have political biases but, much worse, simply don’t tell the truth, or often even try to. Trust in British journalism is at an all-time low – and rightly so.
The UK desperately needs independent journalism and for writers to perform a public service. This is not going to come from the right-wing, billionaire-owned media such as the Mail, Times or Telegraph.
But neither is it going to come from the liberal media such as The Guardian or the BBC, which also largely act as platforms for the security services and routinely amplify the policy priorities of the state.
The renown these two organisations have around the world for impartial news is misplaced when it comes to UK foreign policy, especially when a comparison is made between their coverage and Declassified’s revelations of what the UK is actually doing.
We might hope that by ourselves doing critical journalism on the UK’s role in the world, we will put the rest of the UK national media to shame and they might be encouraged to do their jobs as independent actors.
But this is unlikely – the British national media are corporations with commercial and political agendas. They are news organisations in name only, and work more in the interests of their owners than the public. The choice of issues they cover as “news”, and how they do so, betrays their priorities.
There is now only a small and declining number of journalists working in the national media who are prepared to cover stories revealing controversial aspects of the UK’s impact on human rights.
Prominent American journalist Glenn Greenwald has said that in his experience of working with journalists around the world, the British media is “the most submissive and subsumed by groupthink”.
Since we launched in September 2019, Declassified has published dozens of investigations shining a light on British foreign, military and intelligence policies. We have revealed the UK’s training of military officers from Gulf regimes, the true size of the UK’s overseas military base network, the MOD’s under-reported greenhouse gas emissions and MI6’s secret war in Kenya, among other stories.
All of this has been accrued from open-source information, showing that it is the commitment to uncover stories and determination to hold governments to account that is the key.
Clearly the MOD doesn’t like it. We learned from the review that our blacklisting derived from a “military officer” on loan to the MOD press office who suggested Declassified “should be put on a list of organisations which the department would not engage with”.
It is not clear where in the military this person works or whether such a list exists.
But last month, another independent news site, OpenDemocracy, revealed that the Cabinet Office, headed by Boris Johnson’s close ally Michael Gove, is running a secret “clearing house” unit to delay and deny responses to journalists who make politically sensitive freedom of information requests.
But it’s not just the MOD. Internal emails we recently obtained under the data protection act show that GCHQ, the UK’s largest intelligence agency, also blacklisted another of our journalists, Matt Kennard, Declassified’s head of investigations.
The emails from earlier this year show GCHQ said it would “not be engaging further” with Kennard and decided to “ignore” his requests for information on articles he was writing about a controversial GCHQ programme in British schools – which, inevitably, no other media outlet covered.
GCHQ has since re-engaged with us, probably sensitive to the apology the MOD subsequently made to us, acknowledging that it got it wrong in withholding comment.
The British problem
We in Britain face a deep cultural problem. Our governance system, and the common mindset of foreign policy-makers — steeped in the old, imperial grandeur of former empire builders — suffers from extreme secrecy and elitist notions of a right to rule.
With their major ally, the US superpower, British policy-makers and military leaders act as if they have a right to rule the world by force, changed from the colonial era only in their diminished means to carry it out.
Ministers love lauding UK “democracy” around the world as though Britain is some kind of model for other countries. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Certainly when it comes to foreign policy making, the UK is in reality a highly centralised state where decisions are routinely made behind closed doors by a handful of people, shielded from democratic scrutiny.
The public is allowed to know almost nothing about the activities of the security services (a contrast even to the US) and there is a blanket refusal to impart information on the military’s special forces, which currently operate in at least eight countries, from Afghanistan to Yemen.
The UK’s intelligence services, which have global reach, have been shown to often break the law and operate largely as laws unto themselves, outside of serious democratic control.
Government ministers are able to refuse to answer even basic questions from other MPs about certain controversial government funding schemes, and when they give misleading or untruthful answers are not held to account.
Indeed, the “mother of all parliaments” at Westminster is itself regularly toothless or sycophantic towards the executive, meaning that governments can easily hide what they do. All-party parliamentary committees, which are meant to scrutinise government policies, rarely do and far too often ignore or whitewash them.
The UK prime minister operates a patronage system as brazen as in any country, often appointing party donors or confidantes to key public positions and, as we now see under Covid-19, handing out commercial contracts to companies connected to government insiders.
This is all reinforced by a revolving door of personnel moving between government and large arms or energy corporations which influence and sometimes determine policy-making.
Most shocking perhaps is that British ministers cannot even be made accountable under the law for contributing to deaths, whether at home under Covid-19 or for their complicity in the terrible British war in Yemen.
They are protected by a medieval concept of “Crown immunity” which deems that ministers cannot commit a legal wrong and do not act as persons, but as agents steeped with Crown authority, and are therefore untouchable under the law.
Britain has real, and admirable, elements of democracy such as protections for free speech and freedom of association. But the unmentionable truth, also kept hidden largely by a compliant media, is that our policy-making system is overall more oligarchy than democracy.
The government’s review into our blacklisting illustrates this – yet again.