Update: Boris Johnson’s spokesperson has refused to condemn Jacob Rees-Mogg’s comments in a Lobby briefing, according to the Mirror.
The No 10 spokesperson said: “These are not comments that he would have made.”
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But he added: “The audio clip in question that had been the subject of this story had been selectively clipped, which distorted the Foreign Secretary’s comments.
“You will be aware that the PM is a staunch believer in the value of the free press and the important role journalists play in our democracy.”
Asked further questions, the spokesperson said: “These comments were made by Jacob Rees-Mogg and I’m confident he can explain their intended meaning.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg has been accused of smearing a journalist and urged to apologise during a row over trade deal remarks made by the Foreign Secretary.
A leaked video call, published by Huffpost UK, suggested Dominic Raab told officials the UK should strike trade deals with nations that do not meet European standards on human rights.
Commons Leader Rees-Mogg claimed the Foreign Secretary’s comments had been “shockingly distorted by low-quality journalism”.
Speaking with the protection of parliamentary privilege, Rees-Mogg told MPs on Thursday: “It is a cheat that journalists sometimes use of editing text or a recording.”
He added: “It’s a very cheap level of journalism, it’s not a proper way to behave and he was absolutely clear that there are behaviours that mean you can’t trade with people, and he said that if only people had bothered not to clip the recording unfairly, improperly and broadly dishonestly.
“And I think we should look at that type of poor-quality online journalism. It’s not the sort of thing that would happen in The Times.”
In response, Huffpost deputy political editor Arj Singh, the journalist who wrote the article, posted the clip and wrote “judge for yourself”.
Commons leader Jacob Rees Mogg has just told MPs that Dominic Raab's own comments which came out of his own mouth and were recorded on tape were "shockingly distorted by low quality journalism" by me.
Judge for yourself… pic.twitter.com/VFe0O8P2lt
— Arj Singh (@singharj) March 18, 2021
The former PA journalist also wrote on Twitter: “Jacob Rees-Mogg has also misled Parliament by accusing Huffpost UK of using a ‘cheat’ to ‘edit’ the recording – this is not true, we did not edit any recording passed to us and quoted it in full.”
Huffpost UK editor-in-chief Jess Brammar tweeted: “To use parliamentary privilege to smear a journalist – knowing you can’t be sued for defamation because you are saying it in Parliament – is extremely troubling.
“We stand by Arj and his journalism. Produce your evidence, Jacob Rees-Mogg, or retract and set the record straight.”
Labour shadow Commons leader Valerie Vaz later raised a point of order and said of Rees-Mogg: “He may have inadvertently misled the House when he used words like ‘cheat’ and ‘edit’ the recording about something I raised in relation to the Foreign Secretary.
“I’ve had this from the journalist in question and the Huffpost: ‘We did not edit any recording passed to us and quoted it in full.’
“If the Leader is not prepared to repeat it outside then he must withdraw it and apologise now, otherwise he’s casting aspersions on the integrity of a journalist.”
But Rees-Mogg repeated a Foreign Office statement which claimed the audio containing Raab’s remarks had been “deliberately and selectively clipped to distort” them.
He told MPs: “If the journalist didn’t clip it himself, he ought to have known it was clipped. He is either a knave or a fool.”
In 2018 Rees-Mogg warned fellow politicians against accusing the media of peddling “fake news” and launched a passionate defence of the “public service” provided by journalists.
The Prime Minister’s press secretary Allegra Stratton refused to say whether No 10 endorsed the Commons Leader’s description and said it was a matter for Rees-Mogg whether he chose to repeat the comments outside Parliament, without the protection of privilege.
Asked whether No 10 endorsed Rees-Mogg’s comment, Stratton said: “The Foreign Secretary’s quotes were selectively clipped.”
She added that the Prime Minister “would encourage all journalists, when running quotes, to make sure that quote fully reflects the audio and the view that the individual is trying to get across”.
Johnson, while a journalist, was sacked from The Times for making up a quote – he later claimed he “mildly sandpapered” the comment.
Shadow culture secretary Jo Stevens said there was “sadly a pattern with this Tory government of undermining the hard work of journalists who challenge them” while still claiming to support freedom of the press.
She said Rees-Mogg should apologise and retract the “slur” against Singh.
The exchange is the latest clash between a Government minister and Huffpost, which is facing severe cuts to its UK newsteam.
Equalities minister Kemi Badenoch was widely criticised for accusing Nadine White of “creepy and bizarre” behaviour after the then Huffpost reporter sent a standard request for comment to a Government press office, with the MP posting the emails on Twitter.
The Cabinet Office later dismissed a complaint against Badenoch by arguing her tirade was issued from a “personal” Twitter account.
Earlier this month the Government published the UK’s first national action plan aimed at protecting journalists from abuse and harassment.
Journalists have reported suffering abuse and attacks, such as being punched, threatened with knives, forcibly detained and subjected to rape and death threats, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “cowardly attacks and abuse directed at reporters for simply doing their job cannot continue”.
Commitments in the action plan included training for police officers and journalists, while prosecution services across the UK have reaffirmed their commitment to taking a robust approach to crimes against reporters.
As well as the Badenoch row, the NUJ also pointed to leaked comments by Health Secretary Matt Hancock in which he referred to the Guardian as a “rag”.
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “It beggars belief that government ministers are smearing and impugning journalists in this way, indulging in outrageous behaviour that demeans them and the offices they hold.
“This same government, including the Prime Minister and other ministers, have committed time and resources to tackling the growing problem of abuse and harassment which is compromising the safety of journalists across the UK. Yet here we have colleagues around the cabinet table acting like playground bullies, undermining the work of journalists, bringing their work into disrepute, and dishing out insults that are clearly designed to further inflame harassment and abuse online.
“It’s not acceptable to dismiss reporting you don’t like as fake news. It’s completely unacceptable to resort to insults and personal smears of journalists simply trying to get on with their job. Our elected politicians should be committed to improving the parlous level of public discourse, not further polluting it.
“This behaviour has to stop, the government must get a grip and put its commitments to improving the recognition and value of journalists and journalism into practice.”
Picture: Reuters/Henry Nicholls