Downing Street has defended a minister who launched a public attack on a journalist who asked questions about her role in the government’s vaccine programme, blaming the outburst on a “misunderstanding”.
Boris Johnson’s press secretary Allegra Stratton refused to say whether the prime minister condoned equalities minister Kemi Badenoch’s decision to publish the journalist’s emails on social media in a stream of tweets accusing her of “creepy and bizarre” behaviour.
But she described HuffPost reporter Nadine White as “a great young journalist” and said the PM respected her right to question government ministers.
Ms Badenoch’s outburst came after Ms White emailed her office to inquire why she had not appeared in an official video showing MPs from all parties encouraging people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds to have a Covid vaccine.
In a highly unusual departure from normal procedures, instead of responding, the minister published screenshots of the emails on Twitter in a long thread in which she claimed it was “creepy and bizarre to fixate on who didn’t participate in a video and demand they explain themselves”.
Ms Badenoch claimed that the questions were “a sad insight into how some journalists operate” and “an unfortunate reminder of why there is so much confusion and mistrust”. She said that, despite HuffPost writing frequently about the impact of Covid on minorities, the publication is “quite happy to undermine our efforts to build trust in the vaccine by making absurd claims”.
In the wake of the tweets, HuffPost said Ms White was forced to make her own Twitter account private as she was receiving so much abuse.
Asked at a Westminster media briefing today whether Mr Johnson backed Ms Badenoch’s actions, Ms Stratton said: “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.
“I think this is a case of a misunderstanding between the two parties.”
She refused to say whether Downing Street thought it was Ms Badenoch who had misunderstood the situation.
“From the prime minister’s perspective we see… Nadine White who does a really good job for HuffPost, asking questions of government,” said Ms Stratton. “That’s an important role and a role that the prime minister, as a former journalist, and I, as a former journalist, really respect.
“We have a great young journalist asking questions of government, who must continue to do that. We have 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.”
She added: “We support and encourage Nadine White to ask these questions. And Kemi Badenoch is working very hard to increase confidence in the vaccine.”
Replying to Ms Badenoch’s tweets on Friday, HuffPost editor-in-chief Jess Brammar said it was “correct and standard practice for journalists to check facts and approach people in public office for comment”, and that the website had not published the story without the response.
Ms Brammar added: “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.”
It is understood that the website is making a complaint to the Cabinet Office over the matter.
A spokesperson for the government’s Equality Hub said: “The minister has been working to encourage vaccine take-up and confidence amongst those disproportionately affected by the pandemic. She believes that to instil confidence in the vaccine it is vital to remain unified, and not undermine the message of promoting take-up amongst minority communities.”
“We want every eligible person to benefit from the offer of a free vaccine, no matter their ethnicity or religious beliefs. To ensure this happens the government is pursuing a unified approach to public health messaging, as was demonstrated by the cross-party video released last week.”