Conservatives under fire for banning local paper from filming Theresa May

Matthew Weaver and Rowena Mason
Theresa May makes a campaign stop at a company in St Ives, Cornwall, on Tuesday. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

The Conservative party has been accused of showing contempt for local media after Cornwall’s biggest news website was banned from filming Theresa May’s visit to a factory.

Reporters from Cornwall Live complained that they were shut in a room to enforce the video ban while the prime minister was visiting a diving equipment factory in Helston, in the marginal seat of St Ives.

The news website, which represents the Cornish Guardian, the Western Morning News and West Briton, said it was only allowed to ask two questions and that it was told by No 10 that its multimedia reporter had only been invited as “print media” and was therefore not permitted to film the event.

Jacqui Merrington, the digital editor of Cornwall Live, said the restriction showed an old-fashioned attitude towards the media. “It feels like either contempt or a lack of understanding of what we do in the local press generally,” she said. “You can’t expect any local media to be entirely print-focused now and not have any digital element.”

She said her media group had never experienced such an attempt by a political party to control journalists, adding: “This is certainly a different level in terms of restrictions. A number of us have had an experience with David Cameron and Tony Blair – this was much more restricted than we have seen in the past. David Cameron did a walk through the town with us in Penzance about three years ago. We were allowed full access to him for a 45-minute period.”

Merrington said her reporter asked May about the NHS and then asked for clarification about health funding. The reporter was then told she had used her allotted two questions.

“We were being treated differently from the rest of the media. We weren’t allowed to film even the interview we had with her,” Merrington said. “It just feels likes it’s all very tightly controlled.”

She said the episode raised wider issues about the Conservatives’ attitude towards the media: “The fact that the prime minister is making a visit to a constituency on the campaign trail and then being extremely controlling and restrictive when it comes to access is something that members of the public should be aware of.”

Initial reports incorrectly suggested the Cornwall Live reporter was locked in a room, but this was denied by the Conservatives. A party spokesman said: “One media organisation’s last-minute request to add a camera to a pre-arranged pool of broadcast cameras was not possible this morning. The organisation’s journalists did interview the prime minister and their photographer accompanied the prime minister on a factory tour.

“Theresa May has so far taken four times as many questions from journalists as floundering Jeremy Corbyn while his cabinet can’t even answer basic questions about how they would pay for his nonsensical policies.”

Labour has accused May of hiding by refusing to do television debates, and the prime minister has also come in for criticism during the campaign for doing a series of events with local activists rather than with the general public.

May was visiting the south-west in an attack on the Liberal Democrats for trying to reopen last year’s EU referendum battles in the party’s former regional stronghold. She also visited seats such as St Austell and Newquay – the constituency that Steve Double took from the Liberal Democrats in the 2015 general election – where she was pictured in Mevagissey somewhat uncomfortably eating chips.

The prime minister’s visit to the area comes amid concerns among some Tory MPs elected in 2015 that their seats could be at risk of returning to their former Lib Dem incumbents in remain-voting areas. Most of the south-west voted for Brexit but more urban areas, such as Bath and Cheltenham, leaned towards staying in the EU.

The Lib Dems were wiped out in the south-west in 2015, with the Conservatives holding 51 seats in the region and Labour just four, in Exeter and Bristol.

Writing in the Western Morning News, May sought to associate a vote for the Lib Dems with a vote for the Labour party, even though Tim Farron and Jeremy Corbyn have ruled out any pacts or coalition.

“I am determined not to allow parties like the Liberal Democrats to prosper because it is in their interests to prop up a Corbyn coalition of chaos so that the Brexit process stalls and they can reopen the battles of the past,” she said. “Wherever it says Labour or Liberal Democrat on the ballot, it’s a weak, nonsensical Jeremy Corbyn that gets the vote.”

At the last election, Cameron concentrated much of his campaigning in the south-west in an effort coordinated by his election strategist, Lynton Crosby, to target Lib Dem seats.

In the newspaper article, May urged former Lib Dem voters to stick with the Conservatives. “At the last election, voters here in the south-west were the difference between a strong, majority government and a weak, unstable coalition of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP,” she said.

“The opposition parties are lining up to prop up Jeremy Corbyn and disrupt our Brexit negotiations – a recipe for years of drift and division at this crucial time.”

A string of south-west Conservative MPs are awaiting a Crown Prosecution Service decision due this month on whether to prosecute them for alleged overspending at the 2015 election, which could be an explosive twist in the election campaign.