Banning the Press

By Alan Roden

First, he refused to take a question from a CNN reporter during an extraordinary press conference at Chequers.

Next, the White House administration banned a reporter from a Rose Garden event.

Then Jim Acosta’s press pass was revoked after he very publicly clashed with the president.

Donald Trump’s attacks on a free press have united journalists across the globe in outrage.

BBC political editor Laura Kuennsberg perhaps put it best: “This is categorically not what ought to happen in democracies – locking out reporters because you don’t like their questions.”

And yet… that’s what has been happening in our very own democracy.

On September 19, the day after the Scottish independence referendum, at least three national newspapers were barred from attending a press conference with Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond.

The event took place in Bute House, where Mr Salmond announced his resignation.

I was the political editor of the Scottish Daily Mail and I was barred, along with reporters from the Daily Telegraph and the Scottish Daily Express.

All three titles had vehemently opposed independence throughout the referendum campaign.

Every journalist was running on empty, with pages and pages of copy to file. The Scottish Lobby was scattered across the country: some were in their Glasgow offices; some in their Edinburgh offices; some in the Scottish Parliament where there is a ‘media tower’ for political journalists.

In the early afternoon, word started to spread that a press conference with Mr Salmond would be held at Bute House.

Paul Gilbride, the long-serving political editor of the Scottish Daily Express, was the first to inform me. But he told me he had been instructed he couldn’t attend.

I phoned up the Scottish Government’s press office myself, which is made up of taxpayer-funded civil servants (not party staff).

I was told that only those who were invited would be informed of the details in due course. I didn’t hear from the government again.

The Daily Telegraph decided to turn up anyway – and its reporter was prevented from entering the building.

It was a shameful episode, prompting an emergency general meeting of the Scottish Parliamentary Journalists’ Association (SPJA) – of which I was the secretary – and a letter of complaint to the government’s permanent secretary, Sir Peter Housden.

That Christmas, addressing the media in Bute House, Nicola Sturgeon promised there would be no media bans while she was First Minister. To the best of my knowledge, she has kept her word.

At the time, the response from some on social media was to support the decision because the newspapers in question had been so hostile to Mr Salmond and his cause.

Today, we are seeing the same worrying reaction after The National reported it was banned from a press briefing with Theresa May.

The Scottish Government’s actions were wrong in 2014, and the UK Government’s actions were wrong today.

The full details of why The National was excluded today are not clear, but the situation is troubling. Earlier this month, the paper was similarly not invited to a briefing with David Lidington.

Just like The Daily Mail, The National is not to everyone’s liking. I have repeatedly taken issue with its news judgement and its reluctance to ever criticise the Scottish Government. After all, even during the independence referendum, the Scottish Daily Mail was a critic of both the UK Government and Better Together.

The National has also given me many headaches since I’ve worked in PR. That’s journalists doing their job.

And there are some excellent journalists at the paper, with Kathleen Nutt, Andrew Learmonth and Kirsteen Paterson working hard as part of a very small team.

It is a bona fide newspaper, with reporters who carry media passes issued by the Scottish Parliament.

The National has the right to put questions to the Prime Minister, and its readers deserve to know her response.

That is how our democracy should operate.