For what was billed as a landmark examination of racial disparities, set up directly by Downing Street and months in the making, the arrival of the report was curiously low-key – or, critics say, done with significant media manipulation.
The full 264-page report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities was released at 11.30am on Wednesday. But the bulk of the coverage came before that, when journalists and interviewers had very little idea what it contained.
Before publication the Government Equalities Office (GEO), part of the Cabinet Office, said it would release a “trail” of the report under embargo on Tuesday. This sort of preview is not unusual but there were a few striking differences.
One was the fact that such a complex report was boiled down to little more than 800 words. Even with a publication subsequently condemned as a significant understatement of the problem of racism, the preview very much highlighted its positive aspects, for example a quote calling the UK “a beacon” on such issues.
The preview was also released at 5pm, just early enough for newspaper deadlines but giving little time for analysis or reaction. A number of media outlets complained they had not been sent it. Finally, the document came with instructions that the embargo was a “no approach” one.
Embargos, a directed time before which news cannot be published or broadcast, are routine. But “no approach”, which forbids the gathering of any response to the news before publication, is rare and usually restricted to particular events such as royal honours, or stories with legal or stock market repercussions.
The Guardian decided not to abide by the “no approach” order, judging it was important for readers to have the context of the views of experts and campaign groups in the immediate coverage of the story.
But the intention seemed clear: ministers wanted the first day of coverage about the report – for many media outlets the only day – to be dictated on their own terms, based on a partial and arguably partisan reading of the report, with no contrary views.
In some newspapers, this was exactly what happened. Altrove, the lack of the full report made the questioning of Tony Sewell, the commission chair, who was sent out on a media round on Wednesday morning, notably less detailed than would have been the case.
Media management is of course an element of pretty much all modern governments. But the extent, even brazenness, of the tactics over the release of the racial disparity audit prompted anger among opponents.
A Labour source said: “Selective briefing in this way is a brazen attempt to shut down debate. The Tories clearly have so little faith in their own report that they wanted to stop experts and others from analysing the findings.”
A spokesperson for the GEO said all national newspapers had been given the trail and that others could access it via the PA Media news wires. She said: “The media strategy was developed and approved by the independent commission.”