Civil service ban on contact with journalists without ministerial approval 'nail in coffin of open government'

The Government has been widely criticised for introducing new rules banning civil servants from speaking to the media without permission from a minister. (Picture: Shutterstock)

As reported on Wednesday, this week a change was inserted into the Civil Service Management Code saying: “All contacts with the media should be authorised in advance by the relevant Minister unless a specific delegation or dispensation has been agreed which may be for blocks of posts or areas of activities.

"The Civil Service Code applies to all such contacts. Civil Servants must at all times observe discretion and express comment with moderation, avoiding personal attacks.”

The move has been described by journalists as “a bid to cripple press freedom”, “draconian” and “bollocks”.

The Daily Mail’s editorial today described the move, which it blames on Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, as “yet another nail [in] the coffin of open government”.

The Mail noted that Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who “is said to the even more enthusiastic about the gagging order than Sir Jeremy”, claimed that safeguards to protect “genuine” whistleblowers.

But the editorial said: “But can we believe him?

“Since the Leveson inquiry recommended that police officers should not be allowed informal contacts with journalists, there has been a chilling assault on freedom of expression across the public services.

“The key here is the word ‘public’. State employees do not serve Whitehall. Their duty is to the British people.

“Yet NHS workers, military personnel, police and prison officers have all faced criminal charges for raising legitimate concerns about misconduct within their organisations, and their journalistic contacts have been similarly hounded.”

The Mail added: “The MPs’ expenses scandal, child abuse in Rotherham, lethal failings at Mid-Staffs hospital and revelations of cruelty in care homes were all brought to light by whistleblowers and Britain’s free Press.

“David Cameron showed scant regard for freedom of expression when he set up the Leveson inquiry which subjected the press to a grotesque show trial.

“He could go some way to making amends by revoking this authoritarian edict.”

The Mail also today quotes Margaret Hodge, chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, as saying: “You don’t want to encourage briefing against ministers, or criticising people behind their backs…

“But the more openness, the more understanding people have of the way government works, the better.”

Tory MP Charlotte Leslie and civil service union representatives have also spoken out against the code change.

Meanwhile, several journalists hit out at the Government over the ban when Press Gazette reported the story on Wednesday.  A selection of the reaction tweets are below.

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