Thursday 1 April 2021
Televised press briefings may sound more open, a democratising force. But, actually, they risk turning political reporting into a branch of the entertainment industry
Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, inaugurated his new press briefing room this week. Or, as the media likes to call it, his “£2.6m press briefing room”. Because, of course, if there’s one thing that’s known about the new set-up for televised daily briefings at No. 9 Downing Street, it’s the expense of the refurbishment. It was £2.6m. But if there’s an example of people mistaking the price for the cost, this surely was it.
I’m James Harding, I’m the editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and, in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail, I want to reckon at the future cost of televised Downing Street briefings. The cost to Parliament, trust in politics, and the reputation of the press.
These last few weeks at Tortoise, we’ve been recording a series of podcasts about the Battle for Truth, built on a series of ThinkIns we did on the same subject – and we’re going to put those out in a few weeks’ time. But, as part of that, earlier this week, and just after Downing Street’s shiny new briefing room was unveiled, all bedecked with its patriotic Union Jacks, I found myself talking to Ari Fleischer. He was President George W. Bush’s press secretary and he’d held White House press briefings in the heat of the run-up to the Iraq War. He said that he and Mike McCurry, who was President Bill Clinton’s press secretary and who, in fact, held the first White House daily televised press briefings, have both come to the same view: they both think that the government and the public would be better served by not running live televised press briefings. In their view, the televised briefing has become an occasion for too much posturing on both sides, both politicians and the press. They don’t mind it being televised, they say, but embargo the release – i.e. delay it – so that the real business of Q&A, questions and answers, isn’t derailed by what Ari Fleischer calls “peacocking”.
My colleague at Tortoise, Emily Benn, has been saying for weeks now – and actually wrote in a Slow View – that the largely unremarked casualty of Covid has been Parliament. It’s odd that a government that came to power on the Brexit wave, that had set so much store by parliamentary sovereignty, has so casually sidelined Parliament in setting lockdown rules and curtailing civil liberties; not doing so from the Commons despatch box, but setting these new restrictions from the press podium at the Downing Street conference. The old rule that the media couldn’t be briefed before Parliament had been informed, well, it all feels very B.C. – very Before Coronavirus.
The building of a modern bully pulpit in Downing Street will surely only add to the presidential trappings of the prime minister’s office – and, with it, a further tilting of power away from the Houses of Parliament and towards the Office of the Prime Minister. The logical consequence of this, you’ve go to think, is that personality is going to end up counting even more than policy, that the persona of the PM will count even more than party and that Parliament may well become noisier, but possibly less effectual as a check and balance on executive power. (It was interesting that my former Times colleague Danny Finkelstein made a similar point about the long, steady increase in power accumulated by the prime minister in a column this week. And Alastair Campbell, too, has been worrying aloud about the pre-briefing of the media and the marginalisation of the Commons; you’ll, of course, note there’s an irony to this, an irony that some of us in the media that are looking to defend the power of Parliament, even when it’s losing out at the expense, theoretically, of us, the press.).
But that’s because there’s another cost – the cost to public understanding. A daily televised press briefing is a form of transparency, but let’s not be fooled. It’s performative openness. It makes government more accessible, but, generally, less accountable. And that’s because the daily press briefing is a media dance: the press secretary sets the agenda with the daily message; and even if the media then chooses to talk about something else, they each get one question, no follow-ups, and, these days, less and less access for in-detail, one-on-one interviews with the prime minister and granular briefings with the senior staff. One of the ironies of the administration of Boris Johnson, himself a journalist, is that I can’t remember a time when journalists in the British media are more concerned about Downing Street’s handling of the press.
And then there’s the third cost: trust in the media itself. Because journalists won’t be blameless in all this. There is an inevitable tension between good television and good journalism, between the gotcha moment and incisive, dogged questioning – and social media only adds to the temptation for journalists to succumb to the soundbite moment, to the showboating stand-off, or, as the US has showed, to partisanship in the press. The risk is that political reporting ends up being seen as a branch of the entertainment business; or that the press briefing comes to look like a sandpit for political wannabes.
In public trust in politicians and the media, the price of all this might run to more than £2.6m.
I hope that, in one way or another, you’ll get to make the most of the Easter weekend. Tortoise has been going for two years now. It’s a moment and milestone to celebrate. And we know that we couldn’t even have got started without you, our members. Thank you.