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July 3, 2020

Televised press conference to permanently replace afternoon Downing Street press briefing

By Charlotte Tobitt

The Government should not be allowed to choose who asks questions at its planned new daily televised press briefing or let it replace other opportunities for scrutiny, Lobby journalists have said.

Currently accredited political journalists can ask questions of the Prime Minister’s spokesperson, currently James Slack, on the issues of the day in a behind-closed-doors Lobby briefing each morning and afternoon.

The FT and Times revealed that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is planning to replace the afternoon Lobby briefings with a daily televised conference more in the style of Donald Trump’s White House.

The briefings will commence in October, be hosted by a political appointee who expected to be an experienced broadcaster, and will take place in a room at Number 9 Downing Street to be converted into a media suite, they reported.

Boris Johnson confirmed the news on LBC, saying people had liked hearing directly from the Government during the Covid-19 press briefings.

“People have liked a more direct, detailed information from the Government about what is going on – and I think that they’ve actually particularly liked our brilliant scientific and medical advisers, possibly more than the politicians to be frank,” he said.

“We do think that people want direct engagement and want stuff from us, and so we’re going to have a go at that.”

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Johnson added that he would “pop up from time to time” for the briefings.

The Daily Mirror’s Pippa Crerar, chair of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, and the Mail’s Jason Groves, chair of the Lobby, said in a joint statement to Press Gazette that they hoped the changes weren’t being made to reduce transparency and Lobby journalists’ access to ministers.

“Before Covid we had two on-the-record briefings with No 10 every day – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – which all could attend and ask as many questions as they wished. The second was temporarily replaced by the televised daily briefings which a few reporters were invited to attend virtually.

“We have read the reports about proposed changes with interest and hope the intention is to increase scrutiny and accountability. When No 10 has a detailed plan they feel able to consult us on we’ll be happy to work with them towards that end.

“We would not wish to see any changes used as an excuse to reduce transparency by, for example, reducing the number of daily briefings, limiting questions, those who can ask them, or our on-the-record access to ministers.”

Assurances needed briefings won’t ‘favour the few’

Their comments were echoed by Huffpost’s executive editor for politics Paul Waugh who said on Twitter that the success of the briefings would “depend on whether they lead to genuine scrutiny or propaganda/grandstanding”.

The Society of Editors shared a similar warning that the Government must not make the briefings too “stage-managed” or pick and choose who is allowed to take part.

Executive director Ian Murray said: “If the aim of the televised briefings is to enable greater transparency then it will be important that they are of sufficient length and inclusive in nature to ensure a broad cross section of the media is able to question the government.

“It is vital that the government gives assurances that journalists or media providers out of favour with the administration will not be barred from such briefings and will also be given the opportunity to pose questions.

“Briefings that are too stage-managed and favour the few will not be in the best interests of the public as a whole.”

The daily Covid-19 press conferences often saw millions  tune in to find out updates and see journalists from a wide range of publications grill ministers and scientists.

These daily briefings ended last week but are being brought back for major announcements, the first of which saw Education Secretary Gavin Williamson discuss plans to reopen schools in September.

The PM’s official spokesperson told journalists these events showed “there is a significant public appetite for information about what the Government is doing and why, and we feel that daily on-camera press briefings will help to increase Government accountability and transparency”.

He also said that having a political appointee take the afternoon briefing instead of him would mean they can answer some political questions he cannot.

Since Johnson became Prime Minister last year there have been a series of rows over access and accountability with journalists.

The Mirror was barred from Johnson’s election campaign bus, political journalists staged a walkout after Downing Street attempted to brief a select group and exclude others, and the Government moved Lobby briefings away from the Lobby Room in the House of Commons to Downing Street.

Picture editors wrote to No 10 after the appointment of an in-house photographer meant they were being excluded from major events happening at Downing Street.

Guido ‘victory’

Guido Fawkes reported the plan to televise Lobby briefings as a “victory” after campaigning for it to happen for the past decade.

Guido editor Paul Staines told Press Gazette he was happy but surprised as No 10 director of communications Lee Cain had told him after the election “I wouldn’t get carried away Paul because I’m not really up for it”.

He said journalists at closed briefings are “gatekeepers with their own agenda” who interpret and filter the answers so the public gets them secondhand.

“The answers won’t be mediated so journalists will still get to use their professional judgement to ask questions,” he said.

Staines added that although some questions from the public during the Covid-19 briefings were good, others showed why journalists were needed to ask questions – but not necessarily to filter the answers.

“The public will see how the sausage is made.”

Press Gazette editor-in-chief Dominic Ponsford wrote about the idea earlier this year.

He said: “By televising the briefings, voters will be able to see exactly what has been said and possibly increase the chance of the occasional ‘gotcha’ moment where we learn something the government did not intend to divulge.

“It could also mean that – freed of the requirement to be physically present – reporters would have more time to dig out stories that Number 10 does not want reported.”

A similar plan for ministers to take daily press conferences was quietly dropped by Tony Blair’s Government back in 2005 after journalists protested it would be a waste of time.

They said televised briefings should be additional to, not instead of, normal closed Lobby briefings where more sensitive questions can be asked.

Picture: Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street/Crown Copyright/PA Wire

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