Britain's signals intelligence spy agency, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), is accused of "blacklisting" the head of investigations at Declassified UK in an exclusive report published by the media organisation on 1 December 2020.
Matt Kennard obtained documents from GCHQ, via a subject access request, that suggest the agency has decided it "will not be engaging further" with the investigative journalist following a "negative long-read" that he published with Declassified UK regarding the Cyber Schools Hub (CSH) programme, CyberFirst. Their website states that "CyberFirst is a programme of opportunities to help young people aged 11 - 17 years explore their passion for tech by introducing them to the fast paced world of cyber security".
However, Mr Kennard's investigations suggest that CyberFirst targets British school children with what could be considered pro-agency propaganda and may also be spying on the children themselves. Mr Kennard and historian Mark Curtis, also of Declassified UK, revealed that the programme encompassed twice the number of schools than were publicly disclosed and that weapons manufacturers "involved in war crimes" were also being "promoted" to children via CyberFirst.
Declassified UK has suggested that the apparent decision to either blacklist its head of investigations, or the media organisation as a whole, could violate paragraph 14 of the Civil Services Code, which states:
"You must not: act in a way that unjustifiably favours or discriminates against particular individuals or interests".
Sputnik contacted GCHQ and asked them how they responded to accusations that their apparent blacklisting of Mr Kennard may violate the above code.
An NCSC spokesperson said:
“Public engagement is at the heart of everything the NCSC does in its work to make the UK the safest place to live and work online. We carefully considered the requests from this publication, as we would with any other, and provided it with both background information and on-the-record comment”.
However, Declassified UK reports that after the "negative long-read" (i.e. the first part of the three-part investigation into the Cyber Schools Hub programme), subsequent requests for information made by Mr Kennard to GCHQ remained unanswered.
The news outlet also says that when Mr Kennard attended Cleeve School in Gloucester to interview a member of its staff about its participation in CyberFirst, he was ultimately unsuccessful despite initially being promised that an interview should be possible. Declassified UK concluded that it is "likely the school tipped off GCHQ who told them not to facilitate an interview". They refer to a slightly redacted email obtained via Mr Kennard's subject access request which says “Interesting! Thanks for flagging, [redacted] I think this is the journalist who approached us a while back asking questions including funding”.
“This is yet another worrying example of the UK government imposing arbitrary restrictions on media deemed to be critical – a Trumpian move that has no place in British democracy", Rebecca Vincent of Reporters Without Borders told Declassified UK.
This is not the first time that investigative reporting by Declassified UK has resulted in the media outlet's access being cut off from public bodies.
Phil Miller, another investigative journalist who has published pieces with Declassified UK - including a detailed report of British complicity in war crimes committed against Tamils in Sri Lanka - was previously told by a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence that “we no longer deal with your publication”, though that decision has since been reversed. Declassified UK has also published detailed articles about potential conflicts of interest with then-Chief Magistrate Lady Emma Arbuthnot, who oversaw WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange's extradition hearing, and revealed that the "UK Foreign Office has spent nearly half a million pounds in aid setting up anti-government coalition in Venezuela", in a piece also co-authored by Mr Kennard.
GCHQ and its US sister organisation the National Security Agency were both revealed by NSA-contractor Edward Snowden to be engaged in mass warrantless surveillance, including the vacuuming up and storing of emails, phone calls, social media data, Internet activity, and metadata of hundreds of millions of people, both at home and abroad.