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Artillery Row

Long-running panel show axed

Downing Street briefings have broadcast the government’s PR failings

After 92 performances, the daily televised Downing Street briefing has fallen victim to brighter prospects. To reinforce the idea that a reinterpretation of normality is returning (at least) to England, the decision seeks to convey the equivalent of the policeman at the accident site requesting gawpers to move on because there is nothing more to see.

Commencing on 16 March (a week before Lockdown was declared) the daily briefings had the dual purpose of conveying urgent information on an alarmingly multiplying threat and offering reassurance that the government, flanked on either side by “the science”, was on top of things.

It certainly succeeded in the first of those two ambitions, acting as super-vector for the original message to stay home, protect the NHS, and save lives. In past times, daily televised government press conferences have only happened during wars, like the Gulf and Kosovo conflicts. That the Coronavirus briefings should become part of the daily television schedules underlined the severity of national besiegement.

In the first days, the journalists were not only invited into the room, but seated in rows within elbow-nudging distance of each other whilst taking notes about how easily this novel virus could spread through close contact. Camera angles determined that to get all three spokespersons in the same shot, the prime minister and his chief scientific and medical advisers were also positioned comfortably within 2 metres of one another. Within days these errors were rectified but they should be a reminder of how much fog of war there was in mid-March. Policy – soon to be treated as Holy writ – was made on the hoof.

Whatever the daily briefings achieved as a public information service, they failed as a public relations demonstration of the competence of the British government. Given the succession of missteps and a several fiascos, it is tempting to conclude that the government was on a hiding to nothing from which even the most accomplished of media performers would have floundered. Yet, Scotland’s Coronavirus statistics are (per head of population) only marginally lower than England’s and far worse than those of Wales or Northern Ireland. What is more, the Scottish Government has made several highly debatable judgment calls. But the daily equivalent televised briefings in Edinburgh fronted by Nicola Sturgeon have left four out of five Scots impressed by their government’s handling of the Coronavirus. How come?

An obvious reason is that Scotland’s First Minister is a deft performer in the format, unlike such prime ministerial understudies as Alok Sharma, Priti Patel and Robert Jerrick. But there is also a difference of media culture between Edinburgh and London. The Scottish press corps mostly treat Nicola Sturgeon with respect and the tone of their questions is phrased in the hope of allowing her to elucidate further on her government’s strategy rather than hoping to wrong foot her and expose the limits of her omnipotence.

Anyone tuning-in hoping to hear good news from the battlefront was instead greeted with the equivalent of a black-edged telegram.

By contrast, the pride of the Westminster lobby pack show no such deference, demonstrating testy intolerance of ministerial waffle (of which there has been an abundance given the need to face the press daily when often there is no positive announcement of any newsworthiness to report) and, when occasion demanded it, phrasing questions in a tone of irritated contempt.

The accused cannot choose their interrogators, but they could at least have a good defence ready. Remarkably, Downing Street marshalled facts for these briefings in a way that would lead any jury to convict.

Each briefing started not with an announcement of a government initiative but with the worst possible news – the daily death rate. It was a statistic that needed to appear, but putting it first always got proceedings off on a sombre note. Anyone tuning-in hoping to hear good news from the battlefront was instead greeted with the equivalent of a black-edged telegram.

The presentation of data has showed what might be acclaimed as a casual indifference to political objectives. Perhaps in the first days of Lockdown it was helpful to show how the number of public transport journeys had nose-dived as an cheering indication of national obedience. But the insistence that ever lower lines on the graph was good news ceased to be helpful as soon as the government tried to move to the next stage of encouraging those who could more productively go to work to do so. It was like asking the public not to be virtuous.

The worst public relations misstep was to daily include a slide of international comparison in which the numbers of Coronavirus deaths were plotted in absolute terms. Given that the UK has the second highest population in Europe, how did the government imagine this graph would end up looking? Per head of population, and with some allowance for reporting variances, the UK’s death rate has been broadly comparable with Spain and Italy but significantly better than Belgium. But because the figures were not weighted for population size, the one statistic perhaps almost universally known in Britain is that it has the worst death rate in Europe. This fact established, the briefings duly dropped the international comparison, hoping that we might forget what we had been shown so graphically. There have been multiple reasons throughout this crisis for the British government to be on the defensive, but it has hardly helped itself with a persistently lead-footed messaging strategy.

Henceforth, televised Downing Street briefings will only be held when there is an announcement to be made worthy of the occasion. Those of us who still want the daily data, meanwhile, can check it up on the website. Some may miss the daily dose of cliché, evasion, and failure to convince journalists that dogged pursuit of fault might miss a more strategic appreciation of the bigger picture. But soon the pubs will be open. With that prospect, at least as a government public relations exercise, time could not have been called on the daily briefing soon enough.

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