By Nick Jessup
In a move that came as a surprise to precisely none of the journalists commenting from the corridors of power, the Government announced last night that plans to hold daily ‘White House style’ press briefings in the new press briefing room built in 9 Downing Street have been shelved.
In July 2020, the Prime Minister had expressed the ambition to begin daily televised press briefings, and the Government put an advert out for an official spokesperson to be hired for the specific purpose of leading the briefings. At the time, it was thought that a daily briefing would give the Government the opportunity to project a consistent message, and would build on the seeming success of the coronavirus press conferences that had attracted big audiences.
However, the press briefings were also part of a broader plan, favoured by the Prime Minister’s then Chief Adviser Dominic Cummings, to “smash” the “lobby system” and seize greater influence over the news agenda. Cummings, long disdainful of the media establishment, and Lee Cain, another of the Prime Minister’s former aides, were said to favour allowing only supportive media outlets to attend key government briefings, and had what some would describe as a “difficult” relationship with much of the UK press.
With Cummings and Cain out, the idea has fallen out of favour, despite efforts by the Press Secretary hired for the job, Allegra Stratton, to bridge the relationship between Number 10 and the press. The Prime Minister’s new Director of Communications, Jack Doyle, is far less keen on daily conferences, and The Times has reported that the Government is concerned about giving “oxygen” to difficult stories for ministers. Stratton has been moved to become the government’s spokesperson for COP26 and the briefing room, which drew the ire of some due to its £2.6m price tag, is unlikely to see daily use.
What then, does this say about the Government’s relationship with the media moving forward? Ultimately, one of the telling signs about the whole story is that the scrapping of the long-lauded briefings was no surprise, and that few journalists had perhaps dared hope that they would have the opportunity, on a daily and sustained basis, to challenge the Prime Minister’s spokesperson directly. Perhaps there has also been recognition by Downing Street that regardless of their desire to exert greater influence over the news agenda, journalists will continue to prioritise that which is likely to embarrass the Government, and giving them an opportunity to bring up stories that the Government would prefer not to have to deal with quite so publicly in a daily televised press briefing might not have been a strategically good move.
Equally, daily televised media briefings may well have renewed existing criticism – from figures including the Speaker of the House of Commons Sir Lindsay Hoyle, as well as the Government’s own backbenchers – that the Government tells the media things first, and MPs second.
The Government may have learned from the daily coronavirus briefings at the height of the pandemic that being open and transparent can pay dividends. That in turn, however, becomes a double-edged sword – and if you open the door to transparency daily, you have to keep it open, regardless of which story dominates the headlines. It could also be argued that the credibility that the coronavirus press briefings have had came primarily from the experts at the side of the politicians and not the politicians themselves, and that a press secretary, as part of the Number 10 machine, and unequivocally trotting out Number 10’s lines, would struggle to gain the same credibility in the eyes of the audience.
Few journalists feel that this move by Downing Street is likely to curtail their access or ability to report on the stories that matter. Perhaps the question of main significance then becomes whether this was all just a waste of the taxpayers’ money.