Twitter / WIRED
Those watching the government’s Twitter accounts and websites may have noticed something unusual lately: they’re becoming a lot more outspoken. There are lengthy blog posts calling reporting on official documents “simply wrong” and “misleading”. Tweets from verified official handles call articles “inaccurate” and “unfounded”, tagging in the journalists who wrote them.
The change in communications strategy is Downing Street’s latest step to put the press on the back foot. In recent months the Westminster lobby, a collection of journalists who report on parliamentary activity, have had to fend off attempts to block or bar certain members from key briefings. In February, a number of reporters from news organisations including The Independent, PoliticsHomeand The Mirror were split from their colleagues while in Downing Street and barred from a press briefing. The government said it was a briefing for specialist journalists, and that the remainder of the lobby “barged in”. Back in August 2019, the government launched a “rapid rebuttal unit” to tackle what it perceived as misreporting around Brexit. And now this.
The tweets, in which various ministries tagged in specific journalists and their employers, sometimes coupled with detailed blog posts purportedly rebutting allegations made in reporting, have been criticised for potentially putting online mobs onto reporters. According to Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, the attacks on journalists are unnecessary at a time when holding power to account has never been more important. She worries that the government’s use of social media might trigger trolling and online abuse, and compares it to “the behaviour of despots, not democratic governments”.
The Manchester Evening News’s Jen Williams, mentioned by the Ministry of Housing Communities & Local Government in a robust denial of her report that the government would be defunding a project to take the homeless population off the street during the pandemic, said that “Twitter is bad enough already without the state itself organising pile-ons”. (Williams declined to comment for this story, citing the need for approval from her paper’s press office, who did not respond in time. In tweeted responses to the government, she said that she stood by her reporting.)
It’s a concern, says Bethany Usher, a former newspaper journalist and lecturer at Newcastle University, who researches attack journalism. “Public shaming as communication strategy has shaped interactions between government, journalists and their audiences in a number of different global contexts,” she says. “From the White House Rose Garden to rituals of humiliation of political leaders in the British press in line with election campaigning, for example.” She’s also worried about the long-term impact on the press. “[This technique] uses humiliation to attempt to drive dissenting voices from public spheres or limit people’s engagement with them.” Williams herself tweeted that being publicly called out by the government made her feel sick.
Despite his fame as a bad-tempered critic of British journalism, special Number 10 adviser Dominic Cummings is unlikely to have been the sole architect of this new tactic “I don’t think it comes from him directly – but that group [of advisers] in Number 10 is a group who aren’t afraid of trying new things and stepping outside convention,” says a former Downing Street communications staffer, who asked not to be named because their current employer does not allow them to speak to the press. “There’s just a view they don’t have to play the game the way it used to be.”
But Cummings and other advisors, many of whom worked on the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum, have simply hastened a development that was already underway. The civil service had long wanted – and needed – to modernise their communications. “[The civil service] has always been, until recently, very focused on what you might call traditional mainstream media,” says the former staffer. The Number 10 media monitoring unit, introduced in September 1997 under New Labour, trawled through newspaper headlines and television and radio bulletins, but until recently didn’t proactively monitor social media sentiment at scale. That was an error. “[On social media,] that’s where a lot of communication is happening,” the former staffer says. “Broadcast and print media feed off it; social media feeds off it. It’s an ecosystem, and yet the government was not really monitoring it on a systematic basis.”
The government started to change tack in April 2018 when Alex Aiken, executive director of government communications, set up a rapid response unit (RRU) to monitor social media proactively. “We do this to better understand the news environment, to let departments know about emerging stories, and to assess the effectiveness of our public information,” Aiken wrote upon the launch. At the time, the strategy behind the RRU was clear, wrote Aiken: “the RRU is neither a ‘rebuttal’ unit, nor is it a ‘fake news’ unit.” But now things seem to have changed.
“I suspect what’s happening here is there is a desire to be more muscular and more out there,” says the former staffer. “’We’re now monitoring [the online debate] and can see it and need to nip these things in the bud. We can’t wait for the claim to be picked up by someone who is writing the print splash or broadcast bulletin items and deal with it there. We need to do it at source.’”
The former Downing Street communications staffer is sanguine about the fact that the government is tackling head-on what it sees as incorrect information circulating online. “The fact it’s being done, I don’t think should be a surprise,” they say. “The way it’s being done, that’s a different question.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, which originally targeted Williams, said that its rebuttals were designed to “provide more detail and clarify inaccurate or misleading claims in the media about MHCLG policies so the public can be fully informed. Any response we have published has been proportionate, factual and not political in nature,” they added.
The Cabinet Office declined to comment for the story. Number 10’s press office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
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