Analysis: Why Boris Johnson’s move to put the daily Lobby briefings on TV might backfire on him
Boris Johnson said the public wants more direct engagement with the Government (PA)
The move by Downing Street to put the daily briefings with political journalists on television is part of a wider pattern to try and disrupt the Lobby system, bypass what they see as partisan hacks, and speak directly to voters. But it is a highly risky move.
The current incumbents of Number 10 are not the first to see a post-election victory period as the perfect opportunity to “reset” relations with the media.
But unlike those who have gone before them they are actually taking the leap to copy the White House’s on-camera press conferences.
Boris Johnson claimed on LBC on Friday the public wanted more "direct engagement” with Government off the back of the coronavirus briefings in the past few months.
In truth they want to try and cut out the middle man, deliver their agenda directly to the public, and remove the filter of those who they feel can misquote, remove context or play down their achievements.
It’s why Number 10 created the “People’s PMQs” sessions of softball questions for Mr Johnson on Facebook. It's why they scaled back journalist questions to allow the public to ask them at the Covid-19 briefings. And it's why some news outlets have been boycotted altogether.
The approach also explains why Downing Street got into a bizarre row over what building the regular briefings are held in at the start of the year, and why there was a walkout of senior political editors from a Number 10 meeting back in February when some of their colleagues were denied entry.
But whereas the media thinks sunlight is the best disinfectant, governments like to keep lots of things hidden, and committing to airing everything in public risks putting something of a millstone around their neck.
Lobby briefings are at their best when reporters are able to make sustained lines of often boring, sometime linguistically pedantic questioning, without a time limit
In normal times the Westminster press pack gets two on-the-record meetings each day with James Slack - the Prime Minister’s official spokesman, or PMOS - where they can ask about whatever they want.
Number 10 has confirmed the second of those, usually in the early afternoon, will now be hosted instead by an “experienced broadcaster” and - they hope - carried live on the BBC and Sky News.
The move has been cautiously welcomed by members of the Lobby, mainly because the morning version will still be taken by PMOS and stay largely as is.
That is important because the first briefing is where most of the news, debate and interest is derived from anyway - the afternoon version is often less well-attended and on some days can be over in just a few minutes.
It means reporters will still get the chance to probe, question and tease out information from an official spokesman, who crucially is a non-political civil servant, without it being some grandstanding TV attempt at a “gotcha” moment.
Lobby briefings are at their best when reporters are able to make sustained lines of often boring, sometime linguistically pedantic questioning, without a time limit, and can work in a pack to uncover what the Government does not want to be known.
A TV version of that would not be possible, which is why there have been previous resistance to it, but keeping the existing morning Lobby makes the second one’s move to being on camera much less of an issue.
Where the briefings are most difficult for the Government is often where they have nothing to say on something important, either not offering a comment or simply repeating a stock line without addressing individual queries.
It never looks great in print, but it will look an awful lot worse if it is broadcast to potentially millions of people.
And sometimes at Lobby the spokesman will not have prepared a response to something, even a major news story, and will instead get back to reporters later in the day.
It causes little fuss when that process takes place away from the cameras, but it will not look great to be standing in front of the nation without an answer to an issue lots of people care about.
And if Number 10 think they will simply get free rein to beam their plans into people’s living rooms, the Dominic Cummings lockdown affair showed that having to front up on the telly each and every single day is a sure fire way to keep a big story in the public eye, and can block out everything else you want to focus on.
The other issue is who will be asked to host these briefings. PMOS confirmed on Friday that the person it will be a political appointee, to “allow them to answer political questions that I cannot”.
Early suggestions have bizarrely included daytime TV favourite Richard Madeley.
But, given the plan has apparently been dreamt up by Cummings and Lee Cain, Downing Street’s director of communications and fellow Vote Leave alumni, whoever is chosen is likely to be asked to take a robust attitude towards the media.
They will also have considerable power, instantly becoming the face of this Conservative administration, called on to defend it, talk up its achievements and outline its plans.
Does Number 10 really know what it’s let itself in for? How will the rest of the Cabinet feel about it?
Regular polling shows the public don’t recognise most senior ministers.
But if the American version of this is anything go by, this new spokesperson will be on TV bulletins every day, and quickly become better-known than the elected politicians they are speaking on behalf of.
And there is the obvious pitfall for Number 10 over which of the two spokespeople takes primacy.
If PMOS says something in the morning, it will be used as ammunition to quiz the political appointee on the same subject in the afternoon, and vice versa the following morning.
If they say different things which one should be used by reporters?
There are lots of unanswered questions, as well as the considerable burden that planning and holding regular press briefings has on departments - all of which means this could be a short-lived experiment.