Boris Johnson has insisted he wants an “unbridled” media after Labour accused the Tories of wanting to “restrict the free press” by threatening Channel 4.
A Conservative source suggested the party may review Channel 4’s public service broadcasting position after it replaced the Prime Minister with an ice sculpture on Thursday evening when he refused to take part in a climate change debate.
The party also made a formal complaint to broadcasting watchdog Ofcom’s election committee over what it said was “a provocative partisan stunt, which would itself constitute making a political opinion in its own right”.
On the “stunt” of having an ice block in his place during the Channel 4 News climate change debate, Mr Johnson told LBC: “I didn’t see the debate but it is noticeable that people have talked more about that than the substance that came out of the debate and I think that is a shame.”
Answering a question about the Tory threat to review the publicly-owned broadcaster’s licence, he responded: “What we want is a free, fair and exuberant, unbridled media. That’s what I want.
“I think a free press is one of the glories of our country and I want to protect it and enshrine it.”
Asked if he would take part in an interview with veteran journalist Andrew Neil, something he has been accused of “running scared” from, he said: “I’m much happier, frankly, to talk about my policies, what we’re doing for the people of this country, rather than endless debates about media and process.
“We’ve already talked quite a lot about a Channel 4 debate rather than talking about climate change.”
A Tory source told the Daily Telegraph: “If we are re-elected, we will have to review Channel 4’s public service broadcasting obligations.”
Shadow culture secretary Tom Watson wrote to Ofcom about the matter and said it was “deeply concerning that a governing party would wish to restrict the free press”.
In his letter, he said: “I’m urging you to call out this meddling and demand that whichever political party wins the next General Election allows Ofcom to operate freely from political interference.
“We need a strong free press, but the Tories are restricting journalists. This campaign, Boris Johnson has banned the Daily Mirror from its battle bus, ducked the Andrew Neil interview and now attempted to bully Channel 4.”
Former Tory culture secretary Ed Vaizey added to the criticism, saying it is “not a sensible strategy for political parties to threaten broadcasters”.
Channel 4 said Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove was not allowed to take part in the debate because it was for party leaders.
The editor of Channel 4 News, Ben de Pear, tweeted a picture of Mr Gove and the Prime Minister’s father, Stanley Johnson, who were both at the studio.
Mr Gove also posted footage of himself arriving and asking if he could be the Conservative voice in the debate.
After the programme, Mr de Pear said: “It was very kind of Michael Gove to offer himself to appear on Channel 4 News this evening, and we always welcome him on the programme.
“However, as we made clear to him repeatedly, because he is not the leader of the Conservative Party, his participation was not required at tonight’s #climatedebate – which was strictly for party leaders only.”
It was kind of @michaelgove to offer himself on C4News instead of @BorisJohnson & we always welcome him. However, as made clear, as he isnât the leader of the Conservatives his participation was not required at tonightâs #climatedebate- which was strictly for party leaders only. https://t.co/32mISwcyRw pic.twitter.com/0MR3UWRgMC— Ben de Pear (@bendepear) November 28, 2019
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell accused Mr Johnson of “running scared” of being interviewed by Mr Neil.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “The reason he is doing it is because he thinks, like, you know, his Bullingdon Club friends, that they’re above the rest of us.
“That they don’t need to be held to account, they don’t need to treated like the rest of us.
“And so what he’s doing now is he’s avoiding, he’s running scared.
“Because he knows that Andrew Neil will take him apart. He’s running scared.
“But even if he does it now, he’s played you. because he pushing it later and later beyond the postal vote returns.”