On the back of the highly successful televised daily coronavirus briefings, No. 10 Downing Street has taken the decision to broadcast weekday afternoon press briefings in October 2020.

At least 2 million people viewed the daily coronavirus briefings every day. Anyone who watched them regularly, as my far better half and I did, knew exactly what the latest on coronavirus was.

I used to tune into the BBC afterwards to get their ‘spin’ on the briefings. I felt as if I were living in a parallel universe, because the self-proclaimed ‘nation’s most trusted’ broadcaster twisted all the main messages.

Therefore, it is no wonder that press briefings are sure to be a ratings winner. Britons at home will be able to see and hear the government’s messages first hand without the spin.

Not surprisingly, the media do not want these briefings televised.

ITV’s political editor Robert Peston is opposed:

Oh, having questions from the public would be great. They worked well on the coronavirus briefings.

Peston really loathes the idea of televised briefings:

Sky’s Beth Rigby also made her opposition clear:

The Press Gazette does not seem to like the plans, either. On July 3, they posted an article, ‘Televised press conference to permanently replace afternoon Downing Street press briefing’.

Excerpts follow, emphases mine:

The briefings will commence in October, be hosted by a political appointee who expected to be an experienced broadcaster, and will take place in a room at Number 9 Downing Street to be converted into a media suite

Boris Johnson confirmed the news on LBC, saying people had liked hearing directly from the Government during the Covid-19 press briefings.

“People have liked a more direct, detailed information from the Government about what is going on – and I think that they’ve actually particularly liked our brilliant scientific and medical advisers, possibly more than the politicians to be frank,” he said.

“We do think that people want direct engagement and want stuff from us, and so we’re going to have a go at that.”

The Daily Mirror’s Pippa Crerar, chair of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, and the Mail’s Jason Groves, chair of the Lobby, said in a joint statement to Press Gazette that they hoped the changes weren’t being made to reduce transparency and Lobby journalists’ access to ministers

See, they care only about themselves. They do not care about the general public.

There was more negativity:

Their comments were echoed by Huffpost’s executive editor for politics Paul Waugh who said on Twitter that the success of the briefings would “depend on whether they lead to genuine scrutiny or propaganda/grandstanding”.

The Society of Editors shared a similar warning that the Government must not make the briefings too “stage-managed” or pick and choose who is allowed to take part.

Executive director Ian Murray said: “If the aim of the televised briefings is to enable greater transparency then it will be important that they are of sufficient length and inclusive in nature to ensure a broad cross section of the media is able to question the government.

“It is vital that the government gives assurances that journalists or media providers out of favour with the administration will not be barred from such briefings and will also be given the opportunity to pose questions.

“Briefings that are too stage-managed and favour the few will not be in the best interests of the public as a whole.”

Yeah, right.

The coronavirus briefings worked really well, so there is no reason to think these will be any different:

The daily Covid-19 press conferences often saw millions tune in to find out updates and see journalists from a wide range of publications grill ministers and scientists.

Guido Fawkes (Paul Staines) was the only one who championed the briefings. He is the UK’s foremost political blogger. As early as January 9, he wrote ‘Live Stream the “People’s Briefings” from Downing Street’. He and his team used to report the highlights from the lobby briefings but perhaps coronavirus put an end to their attendance. In any event, this is what Guido said (red emphases in the original):

In a digital world where news happens in realtime, not to inky deadlines, it is time to just put the briefings out live, streamed to everyone on all platforms. During the election Boris livestreamed his “People’s PMQs” on Facebook, demonstrating there is no technological reason why the briefings can’t be broadcast via a free digital feed to everyone. Hacks will still get to ask the questions, they just won’t be able to spin off-camera, privately delivered answers as they do now. 

The reality is that it isn’t in the interests of hacks to open up the Lobby system or insist more often that quotes are on the public record. Intermediating allows them to more easily introduce their opinions into their new reports. Transparency will devalue their role because information scarcity makes their possession of a spokesman’s phone number so much more valuable. A start to improving and opening up the system would be to put the people’s briefings into the open, in realtime as it happens…

I couldn’t agree more.

On July 2, Guido declared victory when No. 10 announced the news:

He wrote (red emphases in the original):

Guido has won a big victory against the Lobby today, breaking open the Lobby’s preferred closed-style of briefings from Downing Street …

Boris Johnson has clearly listened to the argument for “a culture of transparency and openness’’ in Westminster by backing the broadcasting of the afternoon press briefings and reducing the number of spin doctors across Whitehall. After the success of the televised Covid briefings, Lee Cain plans to continue the on-camera afternoon government briefings. The role will be filled by a political appointee…

Expect an experienced broadcaster to get the job. No 9 Downing Street – where off-camera press briefings are currently held – will be turned into a modern media studio for briefings. A Downing Street source says: “For too long we’ve been running an analogue system in a digital age. People want to hear directly what the government is doing and to see it being held to account…”

Get this next bit, though. Who knew we had 4,000 communications people employed by the government?

The whole of government communications is being overhauled by Alex Aiken, the Executive Director for Government Communications – it will see departments ordered to reduce the 4,000 spin doctors employed by the government. Aiken and Cain believe the changes will lead to smaller, more agile communications operation. Officials have also been told of plans to plans to drastically reduce the government’s communications operation and the number of press officers across Whitehall. Guido’s happy that a decade-long campaign for government briefings unfiltered by Lobby journalists has finally been won…

Me, too.

Veteran broadcaster and journalist Alastair Stewart wrote a good article on this for The Spectator: ‘Boris’s TV briefings could end the lobby pantomime’.

The term ‘lobby’ in this particular context refers to the media.

Pantomime — ‘panto’ — in Britain refers to a Christmas play based on popular old fairy tales, e.g. Puss in Boots. They are fun, noisy performances, often featuring famous television actors in crazy costumes.

One thing we learned from the coronavirus briefings is that the top journalists often ask the same question in an attempt to trap the government. From Monday through Thursday, these journalists were often Laura Kuenssberg (BBC), Robert Peston and Beth Rigby.

I used to watch Laura Kuenssberg afterwards for her spin, which always put an unfavourable light on the government, even when they had something positive to report.

Alastair Stewart says:

Political correspondents often asked the same questions, most seeking a ‘gotcha’ moment in relation to something that should have been done sooner, or better. On occasion they would also use the event to ask questions about non-coronavirus matters.

True, very true.

I was delighted when the government opened up briefing questions to the public. Normally, they had one short video and one written question every day. The public asked useful questions.

The regional press journalists also asked pertinent questions.

Both the public and the regional press were streets ahead of Kuenssberg, Peston and Rigby.

Alastair Stewart thinks so, too:

While the local and regional press were often better still at asking specific, trickier questions which people actually wanted to know the answer to. Most interesting of all perhaps were the members of the public, allowed into the secret society in the closing phase of this farce which inevitably always included some hapless person struggling with the ‘mute’ button.

He is right about referring to the lobby as a secret society:

I am not, and never have been, a member of ‘the lobby’ but it is a sort of Masonic gathering of the political hacks with the Downing Street spokesperson. It is almost as ritualistic: steeped in secrecy, they use the language of ‘sources’, ‘unattributable’ or ‘off-the-record’ and other linguistic mysteries of the game. And, like a St James Club, only members are allowed in.

And, yes, there is ‘a line’ that these guys and gals want to pursue for their anti-government narrative of the day:

When I was a member of the lowly Industrial Correspondents’ lobby, we would gather after a briefing to discuss what ‘the line’ was. I understand a similar game is often played by the political corps, post the Number Ten gatherings. Johnson wants to bust this wide open by putting his man or woman in front of the camera, fielding questions from hacks who will doubtless be ready for their close-ups too.

I disagree with Stewart on the follow-up questions. They became irritating, because the most prominent reporters were grandstanding. He, however, sees it differently:

One precedent that surely will endure from the Covid-19 events will be the supplementary question. It was an error for Johnson to drop these when he was the host. Others, like [health secretary] Matt Hancock, often used them to great effect. What’s more, they added to the public cut and thrust of an exchange between a reporter and a minister. It could be enlightening and, at times, entertaining.

As we do not know yet who will front these briefings on most days, Robert Peston has a suggestion:

Of course, occasionally, a government minister or Boris himself will be at the podium.

Stewart reminds us that past press secretaries had been journalists during their careers:

Churchill had his Brendan Bracken, an FT man. Wilson, Joe Haines, a Mirror man to his finger tips. Thatcher’s Bernard Ingham served the Yorkshire Post and, ironically, the Guardian with distinction. TV has less of a role of honour today but the former Sky News man, the excellent Joey Jones, had a spell in May’s Downing Street.

Who knows what effect this will have on today’s journalism. It is likely to step up a notch. One hopes so, anyway.

In any event:

There is more merit in having a free and frank exchange between press and politicians, in the full glare of the TV lights, than in continuing with the semi-secretive pantomime of the lobby.

The public has a right to know what is really going on in government, without the filter of agenda-driven journalists who by definition oppose conservatives and Conservatives.

It’s great that, post-coronavirus, Boris has resurrected the notion of the ‘People’s Government’.