Credit: Marsham Street (The Home Office), Westminster, London (2000–5) by Terry Farrell and Partners. Accessed via Creative Commons

In the UK, there is a very leaky relationship between the worlds of politics and journalism. Think only of the big political scandals of recent years in 'Partygate' and the CCTV footage of Matt Hancock, both a result of leaks. The point is there are important stories to be told within the walls of government departments.

Access is difficult, not least because departments are trying harder to keep a tight lid on any leaks. One department on the crackdown more than any other is the Home Office, responsible for immigration, security, and law and order.

Amongst the recent governmental crisis in the UK, Suella Braverman returned to office as home secretary, just days after resigning from the same post over a serious security breach. She inherits a department that has become more hardline on immigration and its dealings with the media under her predecessor Priti Patel.

For newsrooms, it helps to have someone who has switched sides. Freelance journalist Nicola Kelly writes for The Guardian on immigration affairs, having worked for the Home Office media relations team seven years ago.

She revealed on a podcast episode she worked on with Tortoise Media, 'Hostile environment: Inside the Home Office', the extent of The Home Office’s heightened wariness of journalists. It has a "Daily Mail Test", which asks each of the 30,000 Home Office staff to self-censor every piece of correspondence for fears it could warrant a place on the front page of the tabloid newspaper.

"The test has become part of everyday parlance,” says Kelly, speaking on the podcast. "Due to this rule of fear everyone is aware of the next scandal or the next story."

She provided more advice on how to pry information from the Home Office from her experience working there.

Protect yourself with the facts

When approaching a government department, especially for the first time or early in your career, it is important to be able to protect your line of questioning with data and information.

"Go in there knowing your facts like the back of your hand – cast iron proof and evidence. And do not make any mistakes," Kelly says.

"The Home Office is robust and strong and they will try to influence and intimidate, especially when you are starting out."

Source of everything

Having a network of press officers across government departments is always going to be helpful, but Kelly explains there are alternatives. You can find a lot of staff members on LinkedIn, for example, who are often willing to speak to journalists.

However, it is not so much the platform as how you use it: "Always be available and accessible by your phone," said Kelly. "Having all of your channels open can be the best way of getting people to talk."

In a department as sensitive as the Home Office, those willing to talk are risking their careers. It is then the job of the journalist to protect them. As good as anecdotes are for your story and soundbites, they can also lead to people being identified. Use with caution. 

Read more: Should I let the source read my article before publication?

Understanding the process

The Home Office uses a traffic light system to prioritise stories. If it is deemed urgent enough it will be escalated to a minister or the Home Secretary when press lines will be written.

"Most of what they do is defensive," Kelly explained. "They are always fighting fires and having to be quite reactive.

"When someone says something like 'there has been a delay', I know that is not always necessarily the truth."

Press releases undergo clearance from ministers and special advisors, and so are heavily manufactured. Instead, head straight to the editor's notes for the meat of the story, she advises.

"Everything is very deliberate and constructed," Kelly explained. "A lot of the background detail they don't necessarily want in the public domain is hidden there. That can be a really good way into a story."

Show your workings

Going behind the scenes, as was the approach in the Tortoise podcast, adds credibility to any reporting: "The journalist should not be the story but sometimes it is in the public interest for people to know. 

"Reporters are entitled to free speech and freedom of the press is hugely important. It’s important for readers to know when that right has been infringed.

"If people try to discredit the story, you've shown your workings."

Seek balance and humanity

Do not expect the true story to come to you. The Home Office is protective of its information, both internally amongst staff and externally with the press. Reporters will need to find their own case studies for more balanced, and more engaging, stories.

"Every story on any Home Office policy should have the voice of an asylum seeker or refugee," Kelly says. 

"These are the stories that are the most powerful and get the most traction with readers, viewers and listeners ... That's a foolproof way of cutting the red tape and bringing humanity back."

This article was updated on 27 October 2022 to reflect the re-appointment of Suella Braverman as home secretary

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