Artillery Row

Shining limelight upon twilight?

Daily televised press conferences are a gift to the media class not to government

How many public relations consultants does it take to explain the British government? Answer: four thousand. Employed across 24 departments, that is an average of 166 per department. Diced another way, there is almost one government comms man or woman for every twenty journalists in Britain – not just one for every twenty newshound reporters, but one for every twenty journalists across disciplines, including those who bring us HiFi News & Record Review, Knit Now and Simply Crochet magazine.

There are dictatorial regimes in the world that fabricate every aspect of the news for print and broadcast without employing this many people to do it for them. And the four thousand spinning for Whitehall do not, of course, include the thousands more engaged by the devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, or those explaining the activities of local government throughout the land.

But if there was an example of the value of shrewd PR then surely it was displayed by the way in which Thursday’s announcement that the government was centralising Whitehall comms teams under (likely) Cabinet Office control was presented. This is an information power-grab that could successfully be portrayed as ending needless duplication and inefficiency. “Four thousand – what are they all doing?” we were effectively invited to ask. Once the reforms go through, departments will be limited to no more than thirty comms operators each. We are assured that staff will be consulted before the policy is implemented. Is there no limit to the smoothness of this spin operation?

However, the government comms revolution does not end with a centralised employer. Thursday’s more eye-catching announcement was the intention to have live televised Downing Street briefings. No 9 Downing Street is to be refurbished to provide a briefing room comparable to the one that has become the theatre of so many White House dramas. If we British can watch Washington DC lobby briefings, why not those run by – and from – Whitehall?

It is an idea that has been around for a while. Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown considered it. But supposedly it is the success of the daily televised coronavirus briefings from Downing Street that has convinced the government that the public wants and needs more of this sort of daytime telly. This, of course, would be the great propaganda success that the government recently cancelled on a daily basis. Why does it need to be revived when there is just the trade figures rather than a killer virus to update us about?

On Friday, a Downing Street spokesperson defended televising daily Downing Street press conferences because there is a “significant public appetite about what the government is doing” and letting the cameras and mics in would “increase scrutiny.” I know he said this because as The Critic’s Westminster lobby correspondent I get to attend (currently by dial-in because of social distancing) the daily morning Downing Street lobby briefings. Why should I get to hear this first before my fellow members of the electorate? By televising Downing Street briefings, limelight can be shone upon this twilight.

Except of course that the fact that I – and all other lobby journalists – can quote anything attributable from these non-televised lobby briefings as soon as they have concluded means that the existing system is hardly a secret society. If anything discussed in these lobby briefings is even remotely worth hearing, it will be tweeted or written-up online within minutes of the lobby briefing concluding. Only a tiny amount of background or operational detail (for instance, when to expect an announcement or data release) is not shared for publication.

In any case, a cabal is not about to be busted. Televised briefings will be in addition to, not in place of, the current non-broadcast lobby briefings, which will continue to be fronted by the prime minister’s spokesman, a civil servant named James Slack.

The biggest loser stands to be parliament

This is a key respect in which the afternoon telly briefings will be different. Instead of a civil servant, the host will be a political frontman or woman plucked from the world of broadcast news or entertainment to be the well-groomed face of government. This may be a great stride forward for making government more consumer-friendly and accessible. Or it could prove to be another victory of style over substance.

As the political journalist, Stephen Bush points out, preparing for these daily shows risks becoming a huge distraction of time and effort for Downing Street and all those departments feeding into it. Who gains? The daily coronavirus briefings have certainly helped Nicola Sturgeon assert her claim to be primus inter Scottorum, but it is less clear cut that Boris Johnson’s government came out favourably against far more aggressive questioning than Scotland’s first minister is commonly accorded.

The biggest loser though stands to be parliament. There is nothing new about governments making announcements to the press that should with greater propriety be made first on the floor of the House. It has been happening to varying extents for decades. But at least the ministerial announcement or response to an Urgent Question can, and often does, still provide the primary forum in which a minister of the crown articulates the policy of Her Majesty’s government. A daily “Live from Downing Street” show threatens to overshadow these important exchanges. After all, if you were responsible for BBC News output, would you select a clip of a question from an MP to an MP, or would you be tempted to focus on the moment your own star BBC journalist got to put the question?

The government may think these changes will strengthen its hand. But it could prove another gift to the triumph of the Media Class.

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