Yesterday’s Times reported that Sky News and BBC News, the country’s two major 24-hour news channels, have refused to commit to broadcasting the Government’s new, televised press briefings every day.
The broadcasters are apparently sensitive of appearing to be giving excessive airtime to what amounts to a massive spinning exercise, and therefore say they will only commit to showing the footage ‘on merit’.
Really the only thing surprising about this is that someone in Downing Street might have thought it wouldn’t be the case. It would be extremely obliging of the main channels to cede so much broadcast real estate so cheaply.
But even with this sensible attitude in place, it seems inevitable that daily televised press conferences will have the same baleful impact on British politics as their US inspiration has had across the water. In lean times it gives Government spinners something else to bend the business of governing out of shape around, and when a crisis hits it risks devolving into a poisonous stand-off, with reporters competing to ‘look tough for the cameras’.
Even without the unpromising example of America, the auguries for this initiative aren’t good. Months of daily Covid-19 press briefings have provided ample demonstration of how these set pieces distort ministers’ priorities – recall the desperate scramble to appear to hit Matt Hancock’s ‘100,000 tests a day’ target.
But with the Prime Minister apparently determined to press ahead with this, are we doomed to see it become a permanent feature of British politics? It certainly could. As Daniel Finkelstein writes: “Once you’ve opened the door to the cameras, which press secretary is going to be the one who shuts it?”
The pressure in favour of the cameras is certainly strong. It is very unfashionable these days to suggest that the business of an institution like the lobby is better conducted behind closed doors. It’s much the same with Parliament: it isn’t obvious that televising the Chamber has improved the quality of what goes on inside it, but Heaven help the hero who tries to turn those cameras off again.
And for all their apparent even handedness now, in the end we can expect the broadcasters to throw their weight any change which increases their importance and gives them more material, as they have with that other unhappy American transplant, televised election debates.
But the example of debates also shows us how tricky it can be to import such rituals from one system to another. Whilst the format has lurched on through every general election since 2010, the reality of British multi-party politics has meant that there was no smooth standardisation of the three-leaders, three-debate format of that first contest. David Cameron, Theresa May, and even Boris Johnson have managed to fight effective rearguard actions against the format.
So the day may yet come when a future press secretary closes the door on the press briefings once again. As it should be.