Outrage at the unusual level of control imposed on media coverage of the home secretary’s trip to Rwanda has grown this weekend during Suella Braverman’s first hours in the country.
Vanessa Thorpe www.theguardian.com
Prominent names, including news presenters, academics and opposition MPs expressed shock at what they considered the partisan reporting of the trip from the right-wing news organisations invited to join the trip. The Guardian, BBC, Mirror, Independent and i Newspaper were barred.
Braverman and her Home Office team flew out on Friday to promote the government’s plan to deport asylum seekers to the African country in a controversial deal signed last April by her predecessor, Priti Patel. No one has been relocated to the country so far, as the plan faces legal challenges, but a Home Office source said on Saturday that that they were “certainly working towards getting the flights off before the summer”.
Braverman appeared in a series of photo-ops, laughing with a group of children and posing in front of an accommodation block set to host asylum seekers. In comments that alarmed human rights campaigners, she described the homes as “really beautiful, high quality, welcoming”.
“I quite like your interior designer,” she added. “I need some advice myself.”
The Telegraph, whose reporter was one of a handful from right-wing outlets picked by the Home Office to join the trip, wrote gushingly about the accommodation. “The houses provide families with off street car parking, fibre optic broadband, front and back gardens, an eco-design that also combats humidity and gases rising from the ground and decor that would not look out of place in a British town house.”
Jon Sopel, the BBC’s former North American editor, told the Observer that the row over who was being allowed to cover the trip, with left-leaning or liberal news organisations left out, immediately reminded him of the pressure put on White House political journalists during the presidency of Donald Trump.
“This sounds familiar, that was my first thought,” said Sopel, now the co-host of The News Agents current affairs podcast. “There was a period when several newspaper titles were not going to be allowed in to press briefings. But the difference in America was that the Correspondents Association immediately pointed to the First Amendment of the Constitution and it was not allowed to happen.”
While a smaller group of political reporters, or “pool”, is sometimes conventionally set up for trips where security concerns are paramount, the understanding is usually that all information will be shared with the wider mix of national reporting teams.
Under Boris Johnson’s premiership there were other alleged attempts to vet the reporters and filter the questions at news briefings and press conferences.
Clive Myrie, the BBC’s news anchor, retweeted the Guardian’s critical account of the trip, while other British journalists expressed surprise that approved reporters were prepared to go along with the vetting process. “It is not very collegiate,” said one former newspaper editor on Saturday.
Michela Wrong, a British journalist and author of a recent book on Rwanda, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad, said the timing of Braverman’s visit was “grotesque”.
“Rwanda and DRC are on the brink of all-out war. The M23 guerrilla group, a Rwandan proxy, has sent 600,000-800,000 Congolese villagers fleeing their homes and Braverman is happily validating the African leader widely recognised to be responsible for the destabilisation of the African Great Lakes.
“Britain should be discussing slapping sanctions on Rwanda – it is the only message Kagame responds to – rather than planning to send migrants there.”
The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, was among political opponents who pointed out that time spent in Rwanda publicising Conservative policy was funded by the public purse. She added: “Suella Braverman has still not come clean on the number of people Rwanda will really take in practice or the full cost to the British taxpayer.
“Already the home secretary has written Rwanda cheques for at least £140m even though she has admitted the scheme is failing and the Home Office says it has a high risk of fraud. Instead of expensive PR stunts she should put that money into going after the smuggling gangs to stop dangerous boat crossings.”
Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, said the trip was “an expensive distraction from the immoral, unworkable Braverman Bill”. He added: “Suella Braverman is wasting taxpayers’ money to flaunt the Conservative party’s latest vanity project in Rwanda. Liberal Democrats will oppose this appalling, anti-refugee law, which is nothing more than a criminal traffickers’ charter.”
On Saturday night the home secretary hailed the partnership with Rwanda after meeting her counterpart, Vincent Biruta. They announced that they had signed an update to their memorandum of understanding, expanding the partnership further “to all categories of people who pass through safe countries and make illegal and dangerous journeys to the UK”.
Braverman said: “We cannot continue to see people risking their lives crossing the Channel, which is why I am pleased to strengthen our agreement even further with the government of Rwanda so we can address the global migration crisis head on.
“Rwanda is a progressive, rapidly growing economy at the forefront of innovation – I have thoroughly enjoyed seeing first-hand the rich opportunities this country can provide to relocated people through our partnership.”
A Rwandan government spokesperson said the country was “ready to absorb the thousands that will come from the UK”.