Thursday 15 April 2021
In theory, it’s the crucible where politicians encounter journalists and a story is revealed in the white heat of the moment. In practice, critics would have it, it’s a cooked-up charade co-produced by the media and politics. What role does the political press conference have now in the battle for truth?
Episode 4 in Season One of ThinkIn with James Harding, The Battle For Truth.
- Beth Rigby, political editor, Sky News
- Alastair Campbell, journalist and Tony Blair’s former director of communications.
- Ari Fleischer, Former White House press secretary under George Bush (2001-2003)
- Daniel Maki, works on intelligence and investigations at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue
James Harding: Hello, and welcome to a ThinkIn with me, James Harding.
On 15 March 1913, Woodrow Wilson became the first president to host a press conference. Apparently, it was stilted and awkward. “A pleasant time was not heard by all.” That was how one reporter put it and he may have been the first. But, I can tell you, he certainly wasn’t the last journalist to come out of a presser feeling that way.
Wilson actually held his next press conference the following week. And he set out the purpose of the exercise. He said: “I want an opportunity to open part of my mind to you, so that you may know my point of view a little better.” I have to say I’m particularly fond of the phrase, “part of my mind”. And I suppose it explains why, for a century since, there have been mixed feelings about the press conference.
To some, it’s the ring in which politicians and the press wrestle for the truth. It’s accountability, even democracy, in action. To others, it’s a piece of news theatre; an entertaining jousting show that’s rigged in favour of the powerful, and (with the collusion of the self-regarding press) against the public ever really finding out what’s going on.
Ever since we started this series of ThinkIns on the Battle for Truth, I see these arguments everywhere: in the world of tech and platforms, and the writing of history, and the use of data, too. But what about journalism itself? Is the everyday conduct of journalism – the press conference, the central set piece of the news business – making it harder for us to see the wood for the trees?
Well, to answer that question, we’re going to take a trip. A trip via Barnard Castle to the Downing Street garden. And then on to the White House briefing room.
“Newsreader: Now it has emerged tonight that the prime minister’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings travelled out of London during the lockdown whilst ill with coronavirus symptoms.”
“Reporter: Did you return to Durham in April? Lots of people wanting to know this morning.
Dominic Cummings: No I did not.
Reporter: Can I ask you while I’m keeping my distance? How many times have you left London during the lockdown, Mr Cummings? The nation would love to know.”
“Newsreader: Mr Cummings was seen rushing from Downing Street on 27 March after it was announced that Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock had tested positive for coronavirus. On Tuesday 31 March, Durham police received a report that an individual had travelled from London to Durham and officers made contact with him.”
“Boris Johnson: I can tell you today, I’ve had extensive face-to-face conversations with Dominic Cummings. And I’ve concluded that in travelling to find the right kind of childcare at the moment when both he and his wife were about to be incapacitated by coronavirus –and when he had no alternative – I think he followed the instincts of every father and every parent.”
“Robert Peston: Do you think he broke the rules or just bent the rules?
Interviewee: Broke, bent, is neither here nor there. The fact of the matter is: Mr Cummings has to play by the rules that he has set, and that everybody else has to abide by. He’s broken those rules. He has to go.”
“Member of the public: Would you recommend Barnard Castle for a day out?”
James: Beth, how are you?
Beth Rigby: I’m very well. How are you James, are you ok?
James: Overworked, underappreciated?
Beth: Aren’t we all?
James: No, no, I was telling you not me – I’m fine.
And joining us for this journey are, well: Beth Rigby, political editor of Sky News; Alastair Campbell, who served a fair few years as a journalist, and then was Tony Blair’s former director of communications, so has hosted a few press conferences of his own; probably even more Ari Fleischer, who was the former White House press secretary under George Bush, and has the scars of press conferences to show for it.
James: Ari, it’s really nice to see you. My goodness. How are you?
Ari Fleischer: Thank you, James, great to see you as well. Thank you for inviting me.
James: It’s great to see you. Where are you living these days?
Ari: I’m in New York.
James: Daniel, where are you? You’re at home, I imagine?
Daniel Mackey: Yeah, I’m in Toronto.
And Daniel Mackey, who works on intelligence and investigations at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
James: Welcome to you all. So let’s go back to that moment on 25 May 2020.
“Dominic Cummings: Yesterday, I gave a full account to the prime minister of my actions between the 27 march on 14 of April – what I thought and did. And he has asked me to repeat that account directly to you.”Dominic Cummings’s rose garden press conference
Take your seats in the Downing Street’s rose garden, where the prime minister’s aide sits, taking only six questions from the press about arguably the biggest Westminster story in years.
“Beth Rigby: Ordinary families have put up with all kinds of restrictions and hardships: people not going to funerals, people not even going into hospital when their kids have been having cancer treatment. Why are you so different?Dominic Cummings’s rose garden press conference
Dominic Cummings: I don’t think I’m so different. And I don’t think there’s one rule for me and one rule for other people.”
James: Did that press conference serve any purpose for anyone other than Dominic Cummings? Beth Rigby, you were there. Did we get any closer to the truth?
Beth: Okay, let’s rewind a bit. There was a wall of silence at Number Ten. And then they realised that that wasn’t going to cut it. And I would sort of characterise that press conference, really, as the throw of the dice to save Dominic Cummings, and to put the story to bed.
It was an amazing piece of theatre. I think we did learn a lot of things. I think the public took their view. And it was watched by millions of people.
But in terms of the jousting between the journalists and the politicians – or in this case, the advisor – it wasn’t particularly a fair fight.
James: But isn’t that always the case, Beth? Isn’t that the genius of the press conference? That the deck is always stacked in favour of the politician or the person behind the podium?
Beth: No, I don’t always think that because you can often prepare. Now, with the Dominic Cummings press conference, I’m in my garden, it’s [parliamentary] recess. I’m digging the garden. I’m literally in my trackies. I mean, I look an absolute fright. I get a call: “Dominic Cummings is having a press conference in two hours, and you need to be in the rose garden.”
And I remember dropping everything in the garden and racing up to my room… booking a cab… and the hairdryers going… and the clothes are being thrown on… the makeup.
I remember phoning Jonathan Levy, who’s our head of news gathering on the way in – in a cab – and I say: “Jonathan, we’ve got an hour to prepare the questions for Dominic Cummings. I don’t even know what he’s going to say.” But I think – what will the public want to know? And, you know, you had an idea [because], well, I’m a member of the public as well as a journalist.
I basically said to Jonathan, I’m going to start writing questions in the cab. When I get to Sky I’ve got to get my face on. I mean, it’s television, right? It was a frantic scramble. And what we didn’t know was what he was going to say. I guess, by deduction, that he wasn’t going to resign because if he was going to resign: why would he have a press conference to explain he was going to resign?
But what was his justification going to be? There were obvious questions that the public wanted answers to. Did you do it? Why did you do it? Are you sorry that you did it. Do you regret that you did it? Was it the wrong thing to do? What did the prime minister think of it? What are the consequences of it? Not just for his own job and his career, but also in terms of Covid policy and public compliance.
James: So that’s what I want to ask you about. I remember it vividly being the weekend. I think maybe even it was a Bank Holiday Monday, because the world seemed closed down and it was a curious thing on a sunny afternoon that people were switching on their televisions in such numbers.
I think the audiences were huge.
Beth: Five million people or something. It was huge. But one of the questions is, admittedly, you don’t know what Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s advisor – is going to say, but is there any coordination between journalists to say, “look, we’re only going to get half a dozen questions here, let’s have a plan of attack”? Let’s make sure that we’re going to get closer to what actually happened. Does that happen at all?
Sometimes it happens and we did begin to try and discuss questions a bit more before press conferences. Just so that journalists weren’t doubling up. But in the context of the Dominic Cummings press conference, you weren’t allowed your phones.
You walked into the rose garden. All of your communications were taken away from you. You had no paper statement to read, so you are literally responding to what he’s saying.
James: I’m sorry, Beth. Why do you have your phones taken away?
Beth: When you go into Number Ten, for security issues they take your phones away. It was so surreal. You went into the rose garden, they kept us waiting for about an hour. We’re all sitting in a socially-distanced way on our chairs. And we are sealed off from the world. It will stay with me: I think it was the most extraordinary thing I had seen. And we asked our questions. And I have lots of regrets now about things I didn’t ask that I had wished I’d asked.
The thing I really regret not asking was: “Why did you put your child in the back of the car to test your eyesight?” If you thought you had dodgy eyes, you would not put your child in the back. I really wish I’d asked that because it’s probably the question that the entire nation was shouting the television screens.
And then when I came out of the rose garden, I picked up my phone and I realised the world had just exploded. It was a massive moment.
James: Alastair Campbell, let me come to you. You’ve been on both sides of the press conference – a fair few years as a journalist, and then a fair few years arranging them and being the voice of them. What do you think? Do you think that a press conference is an effective way for the public to understand what’s really happening in government?
Alastair Campbell: It can be. The reason why the Cumming’s thing was so extraordinary, to my mind, was because it was utterly debasing of the office of prime minister. And of Boris Johnson as prime minister. And, where I disagree with Beth, I think the public had already decided what he had done was wrong. There was no possible excuse for it.
And the more he tried to pretend that there was a proper excuse, I think the more the lies were exposed and the story started to fall apart. And I think the other thing that was utterly debasing, if you remember, was that on the back of it, Johnson as the prime minister went up to that poky little room upstairs – where they’ve been doing these wretched briefings through the pandemic – and the purpose of the briefing was basically to say: “Dominic Cummings has spoken. Now let’s move on.”
Cue the entire cabinet basically cutting and pasting the same tweet. “Dominic Cummings has acted as any parent would. And let’s now move on.” For me, the whole thing was about Boris Johnson. It was about the way he runs or doesn’t run Downing Street. And I found it utterly debasing of the office of prime minister.
So press conferences can be very, very effective. I mean, Ari and I have worked together on press conferences with say Tony Brown and George Bush in some very difficult periods – for example, in the build-up to the Iraq War. And you have a situation there where you’ve got the American media and the American body politic coming at it from one direction. The British media may be coming at it from a different direction.
You’ve got two very different characters, who are trying to be on the same page, but with different politics to manage. And what I say – I think from the political side of the fence and the governmental side of the fence – [with] the press conference is, to some extent, the preparation of what you’re going to say and what you’re going to use it for is as important as anything that happens at the press conference. Because that is where you, in a sense, say: “How are we going to use this strategically to our purposes?” And then it’s a question of managing it.
James: And that’s what I wanted to get at, Alastair. I’m going to come to Ari in a moment. But that’s what I wanted to get at. Which is that when Woodrow Wilson first held that press conference, it was an argument that the press, the media, were incredibly important in enabling the citizens of the United States to understand the country they were living in and the leadership of their government.
But, over time, it’s become about message management and the strategic delivery of the government’s narrative or agenda. And the nature of the press conference – although it’s portrayed as the chance for the press to put those probing questions to politicians for a host of reasons – it’s become the case that, you know, the deck is stacked.
That actually it’s a curated moment that serves the benefit of politicians, and doesn’t really enable the public to understand. Do you think that characterisation is unfair?
Alastair: No, I think it’s right and it can be wrong. I think that characterisation is fair in that that often happens.
Politicians and prime ministers and presidents, they’ve got a lot of things to do with that time. Some of them love talking to the press. Most of them frankly don’t. But it’s something that they accept that they have to do. So they do it. Some of them are very good at it. Some of them are not very good at it.
I do think, and Beth knows that I’ve been quite critical of the briefing both from the government perspective and from the media’s perspective, the government doesn’t use them to be open and transparent with the public. I think they use them as an absolute “let’s get on message, let’s say things are better than they are.” All the cliches, the one thing he’s quite good at. And I think the media questioning has been far too much leaning in to that messaging that the government wants. And I feel that, for example, on issues like his honesty or his dishonesty, I don’t think there’s enough challenging and exposing of that.
I think in terms of integrity and what I would call corruption in a lot of the contracting around Covid, I don’t think there’s nearly enough pressure on that.
And frankly, I actually feel now, yes, the government’s done vaccinations very well thanks to Kate Bingham and Simon Stevens in the main, but actually we’re talking about… I mean, I did a piece for you James months ago… we are on the verge of a national catastrophe. We’ve had that national catastrophe, an eighth of a million people have died and it’s almost it’s already history.
And I think that the government is being given far too much leeway constantly to be using these briefings simply to set their own agenda.
Don’t forget that when we talk about questioning, when you and I were journalists, James, and when I was covering parliament, the place where you expected to see ministers really tested was parliament.
That’s stopped happening, in part, I think because the media is maybe enjoying too much this sense that the government now sees [the press conference] as the big moment.
Johnson’s even doing briefings now after he’s done a statement in parliament.
James: Well let me come to Ari Fleischer. Ari, I’m smiling at Alastair’s description of politicians: some of them like speaking to the press, some of them don’t.
I think we can safely say that the president you served, George W. Bush, it wasn’t the thing that he most loved about being president of the United States… talking to the press. But he did send you out at one of the most difficult times to do just that: 2001-2003.
And I wonder whether you could just give us a sense of what your understanding was of the job that he wanted you to do.
Ari: Well, first, thank you for having me and I apologise. I hope you all can understand my accent.
James: Well we’ll battle on.
Ari: George Bush actually was pretty sophisticated about the press. He understood the role they played. He understood it from two points of view. I’d say one is the constitutional point of view that the First Amendment to our United States constitution gives the press the right to publish and print whatever they want.
He always was constitutionally respectful of the media’s role. Secondly, he understood he needed to feed the beast. And so he fed the beast in a variety of ways. He wasn’t a fan of big formal East Room, White House, primetime news conferences.
Because he thought those all turned into the press peacocking, and he thought it should be about what his answers were and what he had to say.
So he would typically invite the press into the Oval Office, two, three, four times a week on an informal basis after a meeting. I would prep them before I opened the doors and let the press in and ask whatever was hot. He’d give them answers. It would last maybe five to 10 minutes. He would take three or four questions – in and out.
So the press would regularly have access to the president, who sets the tone, sets the direction, is accountable for answers.
And then my job was to take to the podium and assume the position of a human pinata and answer in great depth, for as long as the press wanted the news conferences to go, whatever it was they wanted to ask me.
James: I appreciate that must have been the way it felt, Ari. There was certainly sitting in that room – and I was in that room as you were briefing – a different experience, which was that the phrases used and the arguments used from the White House briefing room podium were very carefully chosen.
And there was an understanding in the Bush White House of how to stage a moment for the president. That they were well choreographed.
But there was also some deliberate phrasemaking, and the one that sticks in my mind most closely – and it wasn’t, I think, you, I think it was the national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, who came out one day into the White House briefing room and said (and this was in the run-up to the Iraq War and the questions of weapons of mass destruction with the front of mind): and the point she made was that they didn’t want a smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.
And I remember thinking as I walked back from the White House briefing room that day, Ari: “This is impossible because that phrase is so indelible. If you’d file your copy without reporting it, you’ll have missed the critical phrase. And if you include it, you will have been party to the making of the case that the administration is seeking to make. I.e. The nature of the podium is that you do control the conversation.
Ari: No, you don’t control the conversation, but you have an influence over it. When you’re in a live moment like that with the media. And depending on whether you’re playing offence or you’re playing defence. You may have some influence, but you don’t control.
James: But Ari, forgive me, don’t you think that the way in which a smart press secretary comes to think about things is: “Let’s always make sure we’re playing offence. Let’s make sure we’ve scripted a phrase.
Ari: Of course, but it doesn’t work that way, but you’re not always playing offence. Depending on the day, you’re definitely playing defence. It depends on what the substance of the news is. On any given day, there are things that we did work very hard to plan and to put a message out there.
Of course, that’s what you do. It’s to support a point of view. But most days, frankly, are spontaneous. Most planning goes by the wayside. It’s very hard to continue to stick to your plan as soon as real life events intervene.
But most lines like that line Connie came up with was spontaneous.
Ari: I don’t recall any meeting where Connie said: “Here’s our line, and here’s what we’re all going to say.” I think it came to her in a weekend show interview. If I recall, that’s the first time I ever heard her say [it]. And, of course, it was such a powerful line. Then people started to repeat it.
James: I just want to go back to the point that Alastair made about journalists. You said, “look, I submit that they’re not neutral”.
You’ve talked about peacocking. Alastair has made the point about journalists not putting the hard questions about honesty or integrity to the prime minister or ministers in the press conference. How much has a) cable television changed the way in which journalists stand up and ask questions in a press conference. And b) how much has social media amplified that change?
Ari: Cables changed the style and the aggressiveness of reporters. In the old days, when nobody would watch the briefing, it really was a state affair. It was an affair for more of your print reporters, who couldn’t care less what they looked like.
And it was a much more serious policy laden briefing. Boring. And then along came live cable television, [where] the first press secretary briefing ever to be covered live was the day the Monica Lewinsky story broke in the United States.
And poor Mike McCurry – Bill Clinton’s press secretary – had to, all of a sudden, for the first time in history, stand there live and answer questions.
I’d say the White House was not playing offence that day.
So cable changed that because now all of a sudden reporters would, as soon as the briefing was over, go to the North Lawn of the white house and [say] “reporting live from the White House”.
You know, that really only began in the late 1990s. It changed the style because it really became a lot about the interactions, the flash points, the moments of anger between a press secretary and a reporter in the heat of a briefing. Good television.
Social media, though, is what’s really done things in – to the point where the media is so different today than it was when I was press secretary. And I just completed the research on this for a book that I’m writing about the media. And the breakdown in America is profound. Democrats have Democratic media outlets and Republicans have Republican media outlets.
There are hardly any media outlets left in America that have a shared viewership. But the reason I raised that is because you asked about social media. What’s happened now is people can shop for the news that they want to hear. And it’s really hurting objectivity, it’s hurting truth finding.
It means that CNN leaves on the cutting room floor so much information. Fox can do the same thing too.
James: I just want to ask Beth whether or not you recognise that from your own experience – I don’t mean the polarisation and social media point – but the reputational point? The fact that when you are standing up and asking a question, as a television reporter, you’re acutely aware that you’re in the frame… that there is something about your personal reputation, and that you’re seeking a moment of television that might be something slightly different from seeking clearer understanding.
Beth: So what I do when I ask a question is I’m always trying to seek clear understanding because actually my job in those briefings is to ask a question that I think members of the public will want to know the answer to.
James: Beth, sorry forgive me. I’m just gonna interrupt you. Is that true? Because there’s an element of a press conference – and the way you talked about the Barnard Castle press conference – which is not always just about finding out who said what, when, it’s also a moment of catharsis for the country. There’s an emotional moment.
Beth: My job is to try and capture a moment for how viewers are feeling. I’m their conduit to those people in power, because I’m in the room and they’re watching at home. It’s not about me. It’s about trying to find what I think is the thing that maybe they want to know – and to express that to the politician.
James: I understand. Well, they’re two different things there. There’s one finding out what they want to know. Right. Which is how do you best craft the question? How do you elicit the most information? And then there’s also: “Speak truth to power. Stick it to the man.” And sometimes people want their journalists to do that. That’s obviously more performative and less inquisitive. And I just wonder whether you feel that tension.
Beth: I think you flex it depending on what the moment is and what the press conference is. And the way I would explain that is: do you remember when Boris Johnson was standing to be Conservative Party leader? He was absolutely nailed on to win.
And that was a truth to power question, which was about his remarks about veiled Muslim women looking like letterboxes. And the question there was: “Some people in your party don’t think you’re fit to be prime minister…?” Because there was an investigation into him from the Conservative Party about those remarks.
That was a truth to power question. I got a lot of blowback for that. I was booed in the room. It was uncomfortable. It was uncomfortable. I wasn’t doing it because I was showboating. Some people that didn’t like the question thought I was. It was because I was trying to channel what I thought some people were feeling.
If he wanted to have the top job, he had to answer a hard question. But then other times in the press conferences, genuinely you are saying this policy is confusing, or there’s not clarity on this, and you’ll try to elicit: “Guys, where are you going with this? What’s the plan?” So you change the question, according to the moment.
James: Alastair Campbell…
Alastair: By the way, going back to Barnard Castle, I thought Beth asked some of the best questions and actually Cummings looked at his most uncomfortable.
I also want to say that I think that the media has been far too accepting of some of these formats.
This is slightly Trumpian the way that you put the media in with a partisan crowd. And you make a speech, and then you say now we’ll get a few questions from the press.
The fact of having a room full of party members inevitably will do one of two things.
It can make a journalist think: “I don’t like being here,” I think this is what I would do, “I’m going to absolutely stick it to them”. Knowing I’m probably going to get shouted down.
Or I think it will actually, with some journalists, cow them.
I think that what the government is doing is a form of intimidation. They’re trying to make the media cowed. And I’m afraid I feel that they’re having some success, particularly with the BBC.
And part of that is saying: “We don’t have separate events now for the media. What we’re going to do is stick them in here with hundreds of people who are actually bang on our side.”
They know they’re going to get in trouble from the crowd. And I think that is dangerous. I think we saw in America how dangerous that approach is. And I think it’s an abuse of power by the government.
James: But Daniel Mackey, I wonder what you make all of this. You must be sitting here watching this, thinking you’re at a completely different part of the forest. You do investigations for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. I remember when I was a reporter at the FT, I headed off to a press conference, one of the people on the investigation side said: “What are you going to do there? You’re not gonna learn anything.” So I wonder how you think journalism should be conducted? And the extent to which you think that press conferences are helpful or not in getting to a deeper understanding of the truth.
Daniel: I think that in their present iteration they’re helpful for understanding what the policy position of the given government or official is.
I don’t think they’re particularly useful for much else.
So I pay attention to press conferences as an intelligence practitioner, in order to understand what the official line is going to be. And that’s it.
Whether it’s truthful or not is sort of beside the point.
If I want to understand the government’s position on something, I’m not going to be just paying attention to a press conference.
I’m going to be looking at what the policy statements look like, I’m going to be looking at what the people in the orbit of the person who gave the presser are saying. I’m going to be looking at what people are back channeling, or maybe being reported on background, in order to understand an issue.
James: So the reason I’m interested in your point of view on this, Daniel, and I really appreciate the simplicity of your view, which is this is the official position.
The problem is that, if you’re trying to understand a more complex picture, the nature of press conferences is that they do very easily go straight onto cable channels live. They do make for very good social media clips. And as well as being a good platform for the official position, they are also just a lot of content.
And how much does that crowd out investigative journalism, data journalism, other means of getting at what’s happening in the world?
Daniel: Oh gosh, I think it crowds out investigative journalism substantially.
If everybody’s covering the latest thing that Donald Trump said, or did, or tweeted or the latest suit that Obama wears… remember the beige suit thing? My God, there was so much more important stuff happening in the world at the time, but we were busy spending new cycles talking about the colour of the man’s suit.
So it absolutely does crowd out legitimate conversation or further inquiry. And I don’t think that that’s unintentional in some instances, to be honest. I think that’s quite calculated.
James: I see Beth nodding here. Beth, just personally, does it crowd out your time to go and do any investigative work?
Beth: It does. And I actually think that we are in a particularly peculiar position at the moment, in the UK. I think in the US you had a position where you had a president who used social media and never stopped – to just keep moving everything along to his agenda.
I think in the UK we have had since 2016 a Brexit crisis, leadership crisis, general election, general election, rolling into a Covid crisis. And I totally take Alastair’s point. There’s lots of big policy areas or practices that have not been properly uncovered. But it’s because we’ve been in a crisis, where everything is moving a hundred miles an hour.
And actually you’re in a hamster wheel where you’re just trying to get the latest information in a way to your viewers. [It’s a] great sadness and regret for me.
Because James, I was at the FT as well for a long, long time before I became a broadcast journalist. And we did do some investigative work. That is deeply satisfying journalistically, and also gives you an opportunity to really explore and probe and scrutinise policy, and how government is operating.
The crises that we’ve been through, I think has made it harder to do that. One thing I hope is that when we come out from this particular crisis of Covid that, journalistically, we can go back from not just news on the day. I hope that it will change and we can go back to substantive policy scrutiny. I really do.
James: Can I ask you, Ari…. There’s a risk this conversation is indulgent, not just in that it’s journalists talking about journalism and people who’ve stood behind the podium in press conferences talking about press conferences. But it’s talking about the flaws in the press conferences within the context of functioning democracies, right?
And heaven knows if you’ve worked for the president of the United States, you’ve ended up doing press conferences with people who are not democratic leaders. And so, have we got the wrong end of this? Do you think that, for whatever the flaws are of the press conference, you’d rather see a world where every president or every prime minister is giving some regular press conference and there is real scrutiny? Do you worry more about the propaganda age than the perversion of the press conference?
Ari: Oh, no. I worry more about if we ever have a president who does not take questions from the press. It’s part of the burden of the presidency. It’s part of the burden of elected office. You owe it to your constituents and the reporters who sit between you and your constituents.
And these days, reporters are very broadly defined to take the hardest questions and let people see you think. And where I push back, James. I think [with] your central premise that it gives an advantage to the newsmaker over the government, I would argue that Donald Trump hurt himself – with the frequency of his news conferences and the things he said at them.
News conferences don’t always help somebody in power. They often show the person’s flaws. And when you show the flaws on live TV, the public sees the flaws. Now, if you have lots of strengths that you show on live TV, the public can see those strengths. People do see it, and they’re able to measure you by it.
You put in the intervening force of a reporter asking what hopefully are good, pushing, tough, but fair questions. And you can measure a politician even more.
James: So what you’re describing there is more the laser light power of the camera than necessarily the power of the journalist?
Ari: The camera, a good question from a journalist who makes somebody think. If I were a journalist, frankly, I would spend more time asking questions that nobody on staff ever thought of to prepare the president or the prime minister for.
I want to see these guys think on their feet. I remember President Trump at one of the Covid news conferences explain that when somebody criticises him, he just has to strike back.
And reporters went on to the next question.
And I thought if I were a reporter, I’d say: “Why? Why can’t you let some things go? Why do you have to fight back?” Take the measure of the leader, get into who they are and what makes them think, how they perform on live camera, how articulate they are, how empathetic they are.
Joe Biden’s doing well in many regards in the United States because of his empathy. So there’s so many different ways that go into the mix. And, as a citizen, I want regular access to see these guys in action.
James: Alastair Campbell…
Alastair: The toughest questions, if you’re on the podium side, are questions that are straightforward questions of fact, to which a member of the public would expect you to know the answer. Let’s take this situation now with Boris Johnson and this Jennifer Arcuri. I can sense that the media don’t want to be prurient, don’t want to make it about a sex scandal, etc. But if I had a question at a press conference for Johnson today. I would say: “Prime minister, for the benefit of the public, can you list the seven Nolan principles of public life?” I wouldn’t say: “And do you think you’ve broken any, and don’t you think that if you have an affair with somebody…?” I would say: “Could you please list the seven principles of public life?” Now, if you refuse to do that, I would then demand a follow-up.
I do think that what the government have managed to do in the Covid briefings is pick the journalists off against each other.
And I’d like to see them working much more together, asking each other’s follow up questions.
“I’m sorry, prime minister. You didn’t answer Beth’s question. Could you now provide an answer? What is the answer to that question?”
I’ll tell you what I really worry about what’s happening in the UK at the moment. I think I totally agree with Ari. I think Joe Biden’s a breath of fresh air.
Ari: I didn’t go that far.
Alastair: Okay. Yes, he’s too verbose and all that, but Trump was just such an appalling influence upon the media political ecosystem right around the world. But I’ll tell you what I really worry about is that the media political ecosystem that I think we’re in danger of getting far too close to is, actually, the sort of Russian-Hungarian model.
To quote the title of a book about how Putin remade Russia: “Nothing is true. Anything is possible.” We now have a prime minister who routinely lies to parliament and to the public, and does not get called out about it. That is incredibly dangerous I think to our democratic base.
James: Beth, is that fair?
Beth: If you have one question and one shot, you have to do a lot of filtering about the thing at that moment that you’re going to have to ask the prime minister. And it’s a hard decision to take.
On the Arcuri stuff, when I got him for a sit-down at party conference in 2019, I asked him three times about [it]. You can go there and you want to go there, but you have to make these judgment calls about what your purpose is at that moment, how much scrutiny, which subject you pick. It’s very difficult to do. And I know, Alastair, because we’ve talked about it.
When you’re on the other side of the screen and you’re watching, lots of people think you’re making the wrong judgement calls.
James: Alastair, do you want to come back?
Alastair: What I would say in answer to that is sometimes I don’t think the role of the journalist at these events is necessarily to ask the questions that they think the public want answered, if that question has already been answered in the way that the government or the ministry is going to answer it in the opening preamble or in the questions that have already gone.
Ari used the word peacocking. And Beth, I don’t think you’re a peacocker, but I think you know that you’ve got peacockers in the press corps. And I do think, sometimes, that you’ve got six questions, you’re not allowed in the room, you’re not allowed follow-ups. And, as I say, I think you should all rebel against that.
But what happens is that at least two or three of those six [questions] are basically asking the question that they want to put in their own package for the later bulletins.
James: But, Alastair, that’s exactly the point. This isn’t personal to a certain extent. It’s practical. The networks or the cable channels or the TV stations want their reporter asking their question.
Alastair: And my point is their viewers don’t give a damn. Their viewers don’t give a damn if it’s Laura Kuenssberg or Robert Peston or Hugh Pym who’s asking the question. They really don’t give a damn. The BBC in particular, I’m afraid, don’t understand just how much this government is trying to change the relationship between power and public – and power and media.
And I just think they’ve got to start standing up for themselves better as a group.
I think the lobby is being weakened. I think it’s being cowed.
James: Can I ask you, Alastair, one question, which is at odds, if you like, with the premise and the drive of this whole conversation… which is are there organisations and institutions that really need press conferences? That would be better served if they had regular press conferences?
And I’m thinking, for example, of the royal family.
Alastair: I really wouldn’t advise the royal family to do it, no. Absolutely not.
James: Just out of interest, why?
Alastair: Because part of the great success…. Listen, I’m a republican, okay, not an Ari Republican, a British republican. The reason the monarchy does as well as it does for so long is because it chooses its moments.
And once you sell the pass in terms of “we’re going to do press conferences”. Absolutely not.
But I think, for example, at the moment, the Labour Party should be doing more.
I actually do think that when Tim Davie came in, actually, maybe at the BBC, maybe a press conference might’ve been the way to go.
There are lots of organisations that should be doing more.
If you’ve got the right message and the right moment, and you can show yourself being tested in an argument with smart people asking difficult questions. It’s a good thing to do.
James: Daniel Mackey, I just wanna ask you about that. Because you frame the press conferences as the moment where the administration gives its view. But actually we’ve seen a big spread of press conferences into sport, for example. There are large parts of life where you haven’t seen it, not least into business, and certainly not in the world you’re interested in: national security.
Do you think that having, if you like, compartmentalised the press conference as a certain kind of journalistic endeavour, you wouldn’t nonetheless like to see it spread into other areas of public life and of power.
Daniel: So would I like to see it spread? Sure. I mean it might be helpful for certain organisations. I would echo Alastair’s point around the royal family. I don’t know if they would necessarily benefit from having a press presence right now. Particularly here in Canada.
James: I was excited as Alastair made that point to hear that Ari slipped in that he’s a monarchist. I know that they’re looking for comms advice, and help, Ari. So this might be a new incarnation.
Ari: Well, please don’t tell anybody in the UK but I was actually referring to the French. I spent a lot of Covid reading books about the French monarchy in the 13th Century. I’m up to Louis XIV now. So I’m almost done.
James: And we’ll look forward to that particular restoration, and your part in it. But, Ari, I wonder whether in the last few minutes, we could try and do something which is sort-of constructive with this problem. I want to start, firstly, with your experiences of press conferences that are really effective.
And my starting point is this. I was a reporter for a while in Westminster, for a while covering the White House. I did a lot of running. I mean, this is partly because I was always late, but I was running because in my day in Westminster, there were two really key meetings.
There was a public briefing that was at Downing Street. And there was one back in the day – I don’t know whether this still happens, Beth – which was in the clock tower in Big Ben. And it was no names, but it was the briefing on the prime minister and the government’s day.
And when I was covering the White House, there was one I think was known as “the gaggle”, which in the early days wasn’t on TV. And then there was the televised press conference.
And there was a different tenor of the conversation between the one that was televised and the one that wasn’t. And I just wondered Ari, you know, things move on, there’s no point going back to the way things were done.
But if you were thinking now about how to get the right mix of public moments and public scrutiny in front of the cameras – and also press investigation and interrogation of policy issues, how would you set up press conferences on behalf of a president of the United States?
Ari: If I were a reporter, I would ask much shorter questions. One of the biggest mistakes that reporters make at news conferences is they let the person think. They explain their questions. They take three, four, five sentences to ask a question. As soon as you say the first one, the wheels are thinking.
Alastair: Ari, Google Robert Peston.
Ari: Okay. [So] short question and make the person spontaneously think. Don’t give them time to wind their wheels. That’s a little bit of the peacocking. Reporters are on camera, so they ask a longer full-throated question to show an audience or to show their editors here’s the broad context.
Now in terms of how you would set it up.
One is the presidential level or the prime minister level: I still believe that that person has that obligation to provide access, to answer questions. And so I just think it’s the obligation – two, three days a week in a short format, because those people are busy, but they should be busy answering reporters’ questions too – for the principal to be held to account and take questions.
Two for the press secretary…. Mike McCurry, who was Bill Clinton’s press secretary as I mentioned…. He and I have jointly written op-eds about this. we’ve recommended turning the cameras off in the White House briefing room. Or, at a minimum, barring live coverage of the press secretary’s briefing. So it makes it, again, a more serious briefing and less of a TV show.
Depending on the era you were there… almost all my briefings were live on cable TV…. After 9/11, they were covered live on the major network TVs, and covered everywhere. And it changes the nature of the briefing.
Interestingly, for Joe Biden, simply because it’s a much more boring time, his press secretary’s briefings are not even covered on cable TV. They take snippets of it and show it afterwards.
Which I think is much better. Government, in some way, should be boring. Not all of it needs to be a red hot show.
James: Beth, what would you do to make journalists more effective in press conferences?
Beth: We’re about to go the other way, aren’t we? I mean, this is so interesting, cause we’re about to take the off-camera, quite integral, dull but quite worthy off-camera press briefings, we’re about to take them on camera.
Ari: They’re going to regret it.
Beth: So we’re about to conduct an experiment here.
Ari: If it’s off camera, how do you put it on camera?
Beth: Well the government has just built a £2.6 million studio. And it looks a bit like the White House briefing room. And from next month the prime minister’s press secretary is going to give on-camera briefings. We’re copying the US. We’re about to start that.
Ari: Bad idea.
James: Ari is both smiling and shaking his head. I just want to know, in that same spirit that I asked Ari: what would you do? What should journalists do to make press conferences more effective?
Beth: Ok, so my big issue – and it comes back to all the messages that Alastair sent me in the middle of the pandemic the first time around, where it was actually very helpful. I mean, he says: “Well if I were you, I would ask this.” And I would go away and think really carefully. But I think I used one of his questions. And he might have outed me.
Alastair: Don’t admit it, Beth.
Beth: I was like, that’s a good one.
James: What was the strike rate of used questions versus discarded ones?
Beth: I was a print journalist, right? I know how annoyed the print journalists are when the broadcast journalists all ask the same question for their package. I try not to do it. I’m not saying I have a 100 per cent success rate, but what would I do to make it more effective?
We’ve got an access issue. When I hear that a president took questions from journalists two or three times a week. That’s like heaven to me.
Ari: Heaven is a much better place, I hope.
Beth: I last had a one-on-one sit down with the prime minister as political editor of Sky News in October 2019.
And it’s not for want of asking. It’s about access.
So the first thing I would want is I would want to be in the room and I would want to have the ability for follow-ups. And that’s not to take the mickey and ask ten questions.
I would like to see, actually, more movement on the part of politicians to feel like they are more accountable and they actually do owe it to the public.
As we’re putting the press briefing on camera, I’ve got an open mind about it, because I think there will be an awkward dance potentially between the stonewalling of the press secretary – and then the performance of the journalists, who then know they’re on camera. So let’s see how it goes. It’s going to be interesting.
James: Daniel, what would you do to improve accountability?
Daniel: I really agree with Beth on that front. I think the Trump White House was an example of what it looks like when you sidelined the press conference altogether. By allowing Trump to have his iPhone or his Android phone in his hand at all times to just put messaging out without really running it through anybody. I mean maybe it was being run by an intern, but I don’t think so based on some of the content.
The press conference became a moot point. And you could see that within the last year of the administration. They held a handful, if that, of press conferences.
The press secretary was nothing more than a target for journalists to go after, because they represented the administration.
Ari: I’ll criticise President Trump. I’ll praise him as I see fit. But he was regularly accessible to the press. He regularly took many more questions than any of his predecessors did on a virtually daily basis.
Daniel: Sure, but he also had a device in his hand where he could just message whatever he wanted whenever he wanted.
Ari: That didn’t obviate the more fundamental relationship between the president and the press corps, which he honoured.
James: Let me just finish one last thought from you, Alastair Campbell. Do you think there’s a recipe for keeping the press conference, but for making it more informative?
Alastair: There is, but there has to be good will on both sides. And I think at the moment there isn’t goodwill on the government side and the political side of the fence. And I don’t think there is a coherent approach on the media side.
Because I totally get what Beth’s saying. I feel sorry for journalists today. They have to tweet. They have to blog. They have to post. They have to do Instagram stories. They have to write. They have to broadcast. I don’t think they’ve got time to breathe and to think.
Johnson’s now got his own photographers, his own video teams, his own social media stuff that they’re putting out – and they’re expecting the media just to cover that.
I wouldn’t cover it unless I was able to question it. And I know that’s a big thing to say, and it’s easy for me to say because I’m not a journalist anymore. I don’t want to be.
But I really think that the British press has got to reach a point and say: “We are not going to be used and abused in the way that we are. We are not going to cover these things.”
Honestly, Beth, you should not cover these briefings live. Because I’ll tell you what I think their purpose is. Their purpose is a further downgrading of the role of parliament in the holding of Johnson to account and ministers to account. And I’m absolutely shocked and appalled that Allegra [Stratton] has taken this job on and is already, it seems to me, prepared to lie for the prime minister at public expense. That should be called out.
James: Well, just to be fair to Allegra Stratton. She’s not here, so we can’t actually give her a chance to defend herself on that.
Alastair: Well, you know, she has a platform. And I think the other day, when she talked about Johnson and honesty and integrity, I would have vomited at her feet. That is where we are now. I think we’ve got a real crisis of media and democracy developing in Britain. And I really don’t think we’re awake enough to it. And we’re not alive to it.
James: I should say, what you say Alastair there about a crisis of media and democracy, is the reason we’ve been holding these conversations, these ThinkIns about the battle for truth… And the funny thing is you go into them pretending in a way that you’re in an entirely open mind. But, of course, you’ve actually got a position on it.
The thing that’s been really interesting about this conversation for me is actually I’ve really moved. I went into this, and Ari picked up on it, with this starting point, this starting observation that the deck’s stacked in favour of the powerful… that there’s something about it that is choreographed, in terms of the language, the choice of subject, the selection of the questioner.
But I take your point, Ari, I really do take your point, that there is something about the moment where a politician is seen thinking on her or his feet – where you get a sense of who that person is. And that has a value that, you know, didn’t exist when Woodrow Wilson held those first press conferences. We do understand them better.
The issue, I think, and this speaks to Alastair’s point about a crisis of media and democracy is that the small-bore gains of televised press conferences have come at the long term cost of trust and respect for our politicians – and they keep paying the price for it.
And I do think that, in the end, the question is going to lie with our journalists.
I’m actually going to come away from this less critical and less suspicious of politicians and the powerful, trying to game the system… and more about how does journalism get organised to respond? So, what organisation is there around questions?
How do we internalise the extent to which people are getting their information on social media, but journalism has something different to do, which is trying to investigate and interrogate those facts? And how do we at the end acknowledge the fact that of course, journalists are public personalities – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the moment of the press conference is then to grand stand, it’s to question.
And so I do think, funnily enough, having gone into this thinking, what do you do to re-engineer the press conference? I come out thinking there’s more to do for the press. So it’s helpful in at least organising my thoughts, getting me a little straighter on my thinking. It’s also just a pleasure to see you all and talk about it. So a big thank you for your time.
We will see Ari Fleischer in the Versailles briefing room… at the next gig.
Ari: Yeah. Don’t tell anybody about this restoration thing, I just need to kind of quietly just…
James: Just get it in there, given the troubles that Macron is having, you know, it’s certainly going to be one of the options on the table.
Alastair: He’ll be alright.
James: Yeah, he will be, I guess. Beth, thank you very much.
Beth: Bye, thank you, I really enjoyed it.
James: And Daniel – thank you very much, I know that you’re busy. It’s great to have you in this conversation. Alastair, thanks. I know you’ve got something to go to.
Alastair: Alright, all the best guys.
Ari: Good to see you all again.
James: Thanks. Take care. Bye.
As you’ll know, this ThinkIn came out of a series that we held in our newsroom at Tortoise, a series of ThinkIn’s on the battle for truth. We hold ThinkIn’s every day at Tortoise, you can easily book them in the app and our thinking, our journalism is better informed by your involvement and engagement. I really appreciate how much our members are helping us get a better, deeper, more thoughtful understanding of the world and the times that we’re in. Look forward to seeing you at a ThinkIn soon.
Thank you for listening to the Battle for Truth. I’m James Harding, my producer is Katie Gunning. Tom Kinsella wrote the original music and it is a podcast from Tortoise Studios which is run by Ceri Thomas.