Journalists have not done a good job of holding the Government to account during the daily UK Covid-19 press briefings, according to the majority of respondents to a Press Gazette reader poll.
A total of 1,020 people responded to the question: “Do you think journalists have done a good job of holding the Government to account during the daily UK Covid-19 press briefings?” which ran on Press Gazette for one week.
In response, 718 said “no” (70 per cent), while 302 said “yes” (30 per cent).
In recent weeks, journalists have been the sole real opposition to the Government after parliament shut down for a month having voted through lockdown measures to curb the spread of coronavirus.
At the same time the Labour Party was going through the process of electing a new leader, while the Liberal Democrats remain leaderless after Jo Swinson lost her seat at the last general election.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who leads the UK’s third largest political party, the SNP, with 48 seats in parliament, has herself been involved in coordinating the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
This has left journalists holding power to account at daily public briefings, established by Boris Johnson’s administration on 16 March.
Journalists attended the briefings in person during the early stages of the outbreak, later social distancing and now appearing only via video link.
It fell to political journalists who are members of the Lobby, the group of reporters based at Westminster, to ask the first questions about the coronavirus outbreak and the Government’s response.
Methodology: This poll was an indicative survey of Press Gazette readers which ran on the site from Tuesday 14 April to Tuesday 21 April 2020. It used cookie-based tracking to stop readers from voting twice. Press Gazette’s readers are predominantly journalists and others who work in the news industry.
Journalists from news outlets as diverse as the Health Service Journal and Ladbible have since asked questions at the briefings, but political correspondents have tended to dominate.
It was journalists’ questions that prompted England’s deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jenny Harries, to reveal that the lockdown could last up to six months – far longer than the initial three-week period first proposed.
But there has also been criticism over the perception that they repeat the same questions asked by others, obsess over a single issue, and fail to draw out a response from ministers on key points.
Others have criticised the focus on establishing political culpability at a time when the nation needs to come together.
Journalists themselves have criticised the usefulness of the briefings, among them the BBC’s heavyweight political interviewer Andrew Neil who has said they are “not working” and feature “ridiculous questions”.
These daily press conferences are not working. Each journalist asking far too many questions. Gift for the politicians. All should be limited to one and a follow up (when, inevitably, the question is swerved).
— Andrew Neil (@afneil) March 30, 2020
Second, what kind of answer do you expect? "Absolutely, old bean. It's our policy to kill old people so that the young can live. Have a badge." Really? Put aside the morality for a sec. Why would this government actively seek to kill those who vote for it? Madness.
— Andrew Neil (@afneil) April 15, 2020
Press Gazette understands the decision over who gets to ask questions at the briefings is made by the Lobby.
The coronavirus crisis has marked something of a turn around in the fortunes of Lobby journalists, who were caught up in a feud with Downing Street at the start of the year over changes to Lobby briefings.
In February, journalists walked out of a meeting with the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson over his decision to exclude some reporters.
But on 16 March, a few days after the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic, Boris Johnson’s director of communications said the Government wanted to “wipe the slate clean” during a morning briefing with political journalists, Guido Fawkes reported at the time.
On 2 April, the Government moved to allow journalists to ask follow-up questions at the daily coronavirus briefings, which Press Gazette understands was in response to complaints from Lobby journalists.
A few days later, while delivering a Covid-19 public briefing, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove went further still, saying: “Robust scrutiny is to be welcomed; it is the duty of the media.”
In another recent Press Gazette poll, almost half of more than 1,000 respondents said they believed public trust in journalists has fallen since the coronavirus outbreak began, more than any other option.