Cancelling Televised Briefings Doesn’t Benefit Voters

A certain smugness prevails in the Lobby today that they have kiboshed the £2.6 million plan to bring Downing Street’s briefings into the twenty-first century. Forget all the spin: 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 news reports. Televised transparency would have devalued their role because information scarcity makes their possession of a spokesman’s phone number so much more valuable. Opening up the system of briefings in real time wasn’t in inky hacks’ interests…

To be fair, there was some reluctance also on the part of the communications professionals in Downing Street to risk the change; the newly-promoted Jack Doyle is a newspaperman, and like his predecessor James Slack, he was never that keen on televising the briefings. Alex Wickham this morning quotes an unnamed government official as saying “that regular televised press briefings were a ‘bad idea’ from the previous No. 10 regime of which ‘no good could come’” because whenever the government was having a difficult day, social media would have been a sea of gotcha clips. On the other hand, Allegra Stratton (an experienced broadcaster) believed it could be made to work better than the current system does now. A good spokesperson could get the message to voters over the heads of hacks with their own agenda. It would also have the benefit of allowing voters to see how the political news sausage is made, which did not show the hacks in a good light during the daily covid briefings.

Last year Downing Street told Guido: “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…”. Doyle on the other hand is keen to definitively end Downing Street’s war with the Lobby, so a full surrender on the analogue front will buy him some goodwill. It won’t last. Hacks will be able to spin the off-camera answers such that they don’t precisely reflect the actual answer given.

The situation now is that unlike in Washington, or even Brussels, the transparent interrogation of the executive by the media is done behind closed doors and off camera. This suits the inky-fingered hacks of the dead tree press, who are well-aware that they would be further downgraded if an unmediated livestream of the day’s questioning were available to voters.  They’ll now be able to go on as gatekeepers setting the political news agenda, unseen by voters…

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