LONDON — Boris Johnson’s government plans to shake up the U.K.’s system for briefing the press and introduce White House-style televised briefings from Downing Street.
Before the coronavirus lockdown, journalists would attend two briefings from the No. 10 spokesman behind closed doors each day, but the afternoon meeting is set to be beamed to the nation with an experienced broadcaster at the helm, as first reported by the Times and the FT and confirmed by POLITICO’s London Playbook. The plan is set to come into force in October, with Johnson set to hire a host and a team of producers in the coming weeks.
The plan was devised by Downing Street Director of Communications Lee Cain, based on the success of the coronavirus daily press briefings, which were introduced in March and viewed by nearly 10 million people a day at the peak of the crisis. Johnson hopes that more direct communication with the public will “introduce a culture of transparency and openness” in Westminster, according to an aide.
Asked about the plan in an interview with LBC radio on Friday, Johnson said the public has liked “seeing what is going on” and wants “direct engagement and stuff from us.”
However, the coronavirus briefings faced criticism for not providing enough clarity. “Is there really any point to these daily news conferences?” asked the Telegraph’s Michael Deacon in early April. “This evening, all they got was 24 minutes of the most pitiful, dispiriting waffle.”
Journalists working elsewhere in the world also questioned how much transparency television cameras would bring. “We have daily televised briefings here [in Brussels] and they really aren’t all that. They don’t do a great deal to improve accountability. But being on camera does ensure spokespeople stick rigidly to pre-prepared statements on set topics and almost never answer the actual question you asked,” tweeted Nick Gutteridge, a reporter based in Brussels.
British political journalists were taken aback by the move, but first reactions were broadly positive.
The briefings will take place in No. 9 Downing Street, which will be turned into a media suite like in the White House. The morning briefing will continue as normal.
British political journalists were taken aback by the move, but first reactions were broadly positive. A top political commentator at Times Radio, Tom Newton Dunn, said it was a “good idea;” the Financial Times’ Jim Pickard said there was “no harm” in televised briefings because “most journalists believe in transparency;” and Mirror Political Editor (and Parliamentary Press Gallery Chair) Pippa Crerar said it was “win-win” for No. 10 — with the better-attended morning briefing off camera and the opportunity to look transparent to the public in the afternoon.
Former senior government comms figures Playbook spoke to last night were either enthused or intrigued.
Paul Harrison, former press secretary to ex-Prime Minister Theresa May, noted that whoever lands the broadcasting job will be crucial. “Whoever No. 10 choose as their new spokesperson will almost immediately become one of the most visible people in the entire administration — with significantly more media exposure than any of the Cabinet,” he said. “Given the influence on evening news programs the daily press briefings showed they could have, there’s a significant prize for Downing Street here to shape the news agenda. The risk — one I know personally — is that at times briefing the press is necessarily a defensive exercise, and, bluntly, that won’t always look tremendous on television.”
Downing Street’s director of communications during the Theresa May years, Robbie Gibb, who complained about the questions from journalists at the coronavirus briefings, likes the sound of it. “It builds on the success of the COVID briefings, which allowed large TV audiences to hear directly from ministers and senior officials,” he said. “A more open and transparent government has got to be a good thing.”
David Cameron’s former comms chief, Craig Oliver, is also on board. “It’s a brave and much-needed shake up of the lobby system, bringing transparency to a process that too often has been shrouded in unnecessary secrecy,” he said.
The change to briefings is part of a wider plan to slash the number of press officers working across the British civil service, as part of an overhaul of government communications. The proposals, set to be included in a spending review expected next week, will see all departments limited to 30 communications staff, meaning a significant cut in the 4,000-odd army working across the civil service.
All teams will be managed centrally from the Cabinet Office, instead of from their own departments, with up to four director-general level communications bosses reporting to new Downing Street Permanent Secretary Simon Case, an insider told Playbook.
Cain is said to have told government communications bosses earlier this year that he wanted smaller press teams for quicker rebuttal and an increase in digital and broadcast news experience. Alex Aiken, the executive director for government communications (who is not leaving his post, contrary to one report), drew up the new structure. Downing Street believes the communications staff who remain will be better paid, while communications directors in each department will have a clearer line for promotion.
The news about job cuts has not gone down well in parts of Whitehall, with staff angry about not being told in advance. Senior communications managers across the civil service will have found out late last night or this morning, with the top level director generals thought only to have been informed in the hours before the story appeared in the papers.
One press officer Playbook spoke to last night was outraged. “To not tell them something like this is so unbelievably disrespectful,” the person said. “There are people sitting at home right now who have been speaking to journalists and protecting the government at all hours of the night, waiting for the front pages to drop, and this has dropped, and they are probably thinking ‘what the fuck.’”
Meanwhile, Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union for civil servants, argued the move amounted to “a dramatic curtailment of the power of departments and their ministers to control their own communications.” He added: “If I was a Cabinet minister I’d be fuming.”
However, press officers London Playbook spoke to last night did agree that the number of comms staff could be slimmed down, even if the landing of the announcement might rile the workforce. One Whitehall source noted that the idea crystalized during the 2019 election campaign, when political special advisers found themselves doing the jobs of entire departmental comms teams because of purdah (the period ahead of elections when government departments are prohibited from speaking to journalists).
Johnson’s top aide, Dominic Cummings, told advisers after the election that departmental comms teams could be massively slashed but deliver the same level of output. Now we’ll see if he was right.
Cristina Gallardo contributed reporting.