The Society of Editors has added its voice to concern raised by the industry after a minister launched an online outburst against a journalist for asking questions.
Equalities minister Kemi Badenoch accused a reporter of “creepy and bizarre” behaviour for asking why she had not appeared in a video promoting the Covid-19 vaccination campaign.
Badenoch went on Twitter to complain that HuffPost UK had sought to “sow distrust by making up claims I refused to take part in a video campaign” after being asked an apparently straightforward question about her non-appearance in the footage.
HuffPost journalist Nadine White had to make her Twitter profile private following Badenoch’s tweets on Friday as she received abuse and harassment on social media as well as via email and her work phone.
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”.
The Society’s executive director Ian Murray expressed his disappointment in the tone of Equalities Minister’s response in such a public forum and condemned the online and offline abuse faced by the journalist as a consequence.
He said: “Journalists have the right to ask questions and hold those in positions of power to account. It was a perfectly legitimate question from HuffPost’s Nadine White – the issue would seem to lie in the minister’s tone in interrogating why the question was ever asked.
“This response by the Minister goes to the heart of the Society’s concerns over politicians espousing the importance of a free press and the protection of journalists, while undermining public trust in the media in their actions.”
Huffpost editor-in-chief Jess Brammar has made a complaint to the Cabinet Office about Badenoch’s behaviour asking for an apology and for the allegations to be withdrawn, and NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet has condemned the abuse faced by White as a result of Badenoch’s “petty” tweets.
Writing in response to Badenoch, Jess Brammar said on Twitter: “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.”
Brammar 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.”
Women journalists and those from ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by online abuse as a result of their work, the Society of Editors warned last year, with one in 14 tweets targeted at female journalists found as abusive.
The Prime Minister’s press secretary, Allegra Stratton, defended the Twitter attack on journalist Nadine White as the result of a “misunderstanding between the two parties”, Press Gazette has reported.
Stratton said the minister had been “civil” to Ms 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”, Stratton went on.
She added that 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.”