Televised press briefings an attempt to ‘go over the head of the media’ panel warns

Posted on: September 16, 2020 by Claire Meadows

The imminent move by Number 10 to White House-style televised press briefings is an attempt by Downing Street to go over the head of the media and speak directly to the public, leading journalists have said.

The comments came as part of a debate, organised by the Media Society, looking at ‘The Battle for the News’ and increased attempts by Downing Street to circumnavigate the media in favour of their own communication channels since Boris Johnson was elected last year.  

The debate, chaired by Phil Harding, former Editor of the BBC Today programme also heard from Pippa Crerar, Daily Mirror Political Editor and chair of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, Will Walden, former Westminster journalist and now Senior Counsel for strategic communications at global PR firm Edelman and Mark Mardell, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s World This Weekend.

The debate followed an announcement in July that from October 2020, the government is expected to introduce daily White House-style televised press briefings. This followed the introduction of daily televised briefings by government ministers during the height of the Covid crisis. 

Walden, a former spokesman, press secretary and communications director to Boris Johnson said that it was no surprise that the Prime Minister’s office wanted to use other communications methods to “appeal directly over the media’s heads” as those around the PM consider the media to be part of the establishment.

He said: “You have to understand how central Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings, Lee Cain and others are to the Prime Minister’s operation and how reliant he is on them. He is a very of-the-moment character Boris. He got shunned by the establishment in 2016 and his response was to double-down. The people that are with him today are the very people that helped him win the referendum, the ones that stuck with him in trying to deliver that referendum and who helped him get a big election victory last year.

“They see the media as part of the establishment, an obstacle for change and, at worst, a pain in the backside asking difficult questions. What you have to remember about this small band of people around the Prime Minister is that they’re very tight ideologically […] They believe that they changed politics forever and used radical communication methods to get their message out there and they had no help from the establishment media.

“It should be no surprise that they have taken a very campaigning attitude which is basically that ‘we’re going to talk above the heads of people’ in order to get to the voters.”

The governments reliance upon focus groups also meant that the role of journalists in relaying messages to the public was also judged as less important by Number 10.

He added: “Dominic Cummings is obsessed with focus-grouping. So, he looks at it and he focus groups it and that is where they push their agenda. If they can appeal directly over the media’s heads using other communications methods in order to push that agenda, they don’t care what Pippa [Crerar] and her colleagues are asking because they just think it is white noise.”

The panellists agreed that post-election, the Prime Minister’s office had continued to govern in a “campaigning style” rather than what the media had become accustomed to.

Crerar said that upon the Conservative Party winning the election, the feeling was that Number 10 then had a much more aggressive approach to the media.

She said: “Relationships between the political lobby and Number 10 have never been entirely smooth and you wouldn’t necessarily expect them or indeed want them to be. It is not really our job to be their pals after all – it is our job to hold them to account and, in some cases, to make their life quite difficult for them.

“What is difficult about this Number 10, at least up until the start of the coronavirus crisis, was that they felt much more aggressive in their approach to the media and possibly much more dismissive. They have a different way of getting their message across. They much prefer direct communications.”

Upon the outbreak of Covid-19, the Prime Minister’s office recognised the value of the media in getting its message across and the daily briefings played to their want of communicating directly with the public, the panel agreed.

Crerar added: “Number 10 realised that having this confrontational relationship with the media would not be ideal or optimum. They did recognise how important it would be to use us as a vehicle to make sure the public knew what was going on.”

Walden agreed that the imminent move to televised daily briefings and the introduction of a new Prime Minister’s spokesperson was a further attempt by Number 10 to control the message from a visual point of view.

He said: “Particularly with the pandemic they have felt that they can’t get credit for what they’ve done well as opposed to what they’ve done badly. It is about trying to take some control of that. If they can provide themselves a platform where they speak over the heads of the media to people at home, I think that is one advantage to it.”

The panel agreed that the political choice of spokesperson was incredibly important from a government communications point of view.

Walden said: “This person will become the second most important face of the government behind the Prime Minister and the difficulty is that in good times it could work. In bad times […] the tone that that individual sets is all important. It is a risk and the choice of the individual is so important to the Prime Minister.”

Mark Mardell argued that having someone appear daily on record could play to journalists’ advantage. The success of the appointee would also depend upon their clout and personality and the perception of the briefings as a means of diverting attention elsewhere.

He added: “For all the advantages that the government will get out of it – and I think that the primary one is that the buck doesn’t stop with the Prime Minister but stops someway short of him – I think having someone on the record and saying last month that ‘orange is mainly yellow’ and this week saying that ‘it is actually really red’ and laying those side by side gives a lot of clout. In the end it will play to the journalists’ advantage.

“There’s two things that matter – clout and personality. […] The need to have the clout to be able to go into the Prime Minister and say, “what is really going on?” This is absolutely essential. Even the best press secretaries have come unstuck when they just don’t know.

“I think that people will be better served by having stuff on the record. That is an advantage. I think Number 10 putting people even closer into its orbit and making what Number 10 says the focus of all journalism – what the Prime Minister does and what Number 10 does –  that is hugely important but squeezing out other stories and other angles of politics is not a good thing.”