Conservative bars investigative journalist from party conference

By Mark Curtis, Declassified UK, 1 October 2021

The Conservative Party has refused to grant investigative media outlet Declassified UK access to its annual conference, which will hold a session titled “Is free speech in peril?”

Declassified’s chief reporter Phil Miller will not be allowed into the ruling party’s gathering when it starts in Manchester on Sunday, the Conservative press office has decided.

The move has drawn condemnation from the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and Reporters without Borders and comes weeks after Miller asked defence secretary Ben Wallace about UK relations with Saudi Arabia at an arms fair. 

Wallace was entertaining the Saudi ambassador to London, Prince Khalid Bin Bandar Al Saud, when Miller asked questions about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Refusing Declassified access to the party conference is the latest in a series of attempts to stifle its investigative reporting.

Last year the Ministry of Defence press office told Miller “we no longer deal with your publication” and blacklisted Declassified after it published a string of stories exposing British military support for Gulf dictatorships.

Wallace was later forced to apologise to parliament amid a backlash from press freedom groups and the Council of Europe.

Reacting to the latest ban on Declassified, Rebecca Vincent from media freedom group Reporters Without Borders said: “It’s concerning to hear of yet another example of Declassified being barred access, possibly in retaliation for their critical investigative reporting.” 

Vincent, who runs the watchdog’s UK bureau and its international campaigns for at-risk journalists in countries like Turkey and Azerbaijan, added: “Party conferences should be open to media scrutiny, particularly conferences of the party in government, and Declassified’s journalists have just as much of a right to cover these events as more mainstream media. Such actions only serve to weaken the climate for press freedom in the UK.”

NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet also criticised the move, saying: “The NUJ would hope that the ruling party in government, with a stated aim to promote global press freedom, would accommodate a diversity of media outlets at their party conference. 

“While media access is discretional, all political parties should be accessible to all journalists. We would ask that the Conservative Party reconsider their decision to deny media access to Declassified.”

“Ready to collect”

Miller was initially told by the Conservative Party that his pass had been approved and “will be ready to collect” from a hotel in Manchester from today. 

A party press officer then emailed him to say: “Before we can approve your pass, we need your Authorising Editor to confirm that you will be attending to represent their media organisation…We cannot approve your media pass until we have that confirmation.”

As Declassified was preparing to send such a letter, Miller received another email from the Conservative Party press office now telling him: “Your application for a press pass has not been successful.”

When asked for an explanation, the Party said: “There was an administrative error on our system regarding collecting a pass. All passes to attend conference are at the discretion of the Conservative Party.”

It added: “We have limited space available and have made space available to media outlets that have attended before.” 

Declassified UK has not attended previous conferences because it was only launched in late 2019, after the last physical Conservative conference took place.

However, the bar on new media outlets attending does not appear to be applied consistently. Right-wing TV channel GB News has a stand at the event, despite only launching this year.

GB News journalists are also speaking at two fringe events, including one titled “Is free speech in peril?” Panelists at the event will discuss “how can free speech advocates defend the rights to speak, offend, and oppose, from those who set out to silence criticism”.

The conference will also see Conservative ministers rub shoulders with arms companies and lobbyists for foreign powers.

Wallace is hosting an invitation-only drinks reception with ADS, an aerospace industry pressure group, where guests can “meet with parliamentarians, elected representatives and party staff.” 

The defence secretary is also due to appear on a panel sponsored by arms exporter BAE Systems where he will discuss “future challenges in defence” with Sky News.

International trade secretary Anne–Marie Trevelyan will give an “exclusive interview” at the Conservative Home Marquee in an event sponsored by missile manufacturer Raytheon.

Both BAE and Raytheon are alleged to have supplied equipment that the Saudi air force has used to attack civilians in Yemen.

The conference will also see Britain’s new foreign secretary Liz Truss and the Israeli ambassador host a Conservative Friends of Israel reception with “canapés and drinks as we celebrate the thriving UK–Israel relationship.”

Chancellor Rishi Sunak will host a similar reception with diplomats from the Indian High Commission and former minister Liam Fox will hold a drinks session for Conservative Friends of America “to enhance the special relationship between the UK and the USA in all its forms.”