Jim Waterson and Aubrey AllegrettiSat, 27 March 2021, 7:00 am
They were proposed last summer as a way to revolutionise the transparency of government communications. But the advent of White House-style televised press briefings is to be delayed again until mid-May, as No 10 looks to reform its communications strategy following the departure of key staff.
The delay means it is likely to be at least seven months between the former ITV journalist Allegra Stratton being hired on a £125,000 salary to be the public face of the government and her first appearance on the nation’s television screens.
Despite continued speculation that Downing Street is having doubts about the idea of televising political press briefings, sources insisted the plan is still to push ahead with them once May’s elections are out of the way. The expectation is that by then the relaxation of coronavirus rules means the public will not expect to see familiar ministers on their screens, while the end of the election campaign means TV channels will not be concerned about potential breaches of broadcasting impartiality rules.
It comes as Boris Johnson looks for a new director of communications to shape Downing Street’s post-pandemic political messaging after the recruitment of the incumbent James Slack as deputy editor of the Sun, announced last week.
There is tension at the top of the government between those who want to continue a combative war with the media focused on “culture war” topics, and those who insist they desire a more traditional collaborative approach with favoured media outlets with a focus on softer issues such climate change.
A key change has been the departure of many of the former Vote Leave staff who came into government with former chief of staff Dominic Cummings and press chief Lee Cain. They were willing to boycott entire programmes but left behind a half-finished revolution to focus on online communications and cull the size of government communications departments when they abruptly departed in November amid government infighting.
Instead, this week MPs raised concerns that the government may have floated the idea of decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee in order to influence the BBC’s editorial line without having to actually change the law.
When the idea of decriminalisation was first publicly proposed on the advice of Cummings in December 2019, it sent the BBC into a panic and helped prompt the early retirement of the BBC director general Tony Hall. This laid the groundwork for the appointment of his replacement Tim Davie, who has pursued a series of government-pleasing policies such as clamping down on BBC staff’s social media use and curbing leftwing comedy shows. With the change of direction already achieved – and the BBC’s strong support of government messaging during the coronavirus pandemic – there is some confidence that the war has been won.
Even those who work with Johnson have been baffled at times by which approach to the media is genuinely endorsed by the prime minister. Insiders reported the prime minister’s mood was often hit by negative articles in the Daily Telegraph, his former employer.
“One day he wants to have a swing at the BBC and the next he doesn’t want to have an argument with anyone,” said one.
Instead, No 10 policy chief Munira Mirza was repeatedly mentioned by sources as an individual pushing forward the desire to fight the media on culture war topics, sometimes to the frustration of press aides.
Relations between political journalists and Downing Street have been strained in recent weeks by the decision to break with precedent and not tell lobby journalists about phone calls the prime minister has been having with other European leaders. Downing Street had argued that discussions with the European commission president, Ursula Von der Leyen, and French president, Emmanuel Macron, were simply private calls that did not need to be disclosed.
There is also concern among political journalists that Downing Street is tolerating ministers who make their own attacks on the media. In recent months two HuffPost UK reporters – Nadine White and Arj Singh – have been targeted by Conservative ministers Kemi Badenoch and Jacob Rees-Mogg for their work. Amid an outcry from members of the media, Downing Street has mildly distanced itself from their actions but not forced them to apologise, with Rees-Mogg repeatedly refusing to withdraw his charge that Singh manipulated audio to smear the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab.
For the public, the biggest change will be the forthcoming press briefings, which could be as exposing for political journalists asking the questions as it will be for Stratton.
The £2.6m bill for refitting a room in 9 Downing Street to host the briefings has already come under scrutiny, with the substantial cost partly attributed to fixing the terrible acoustics in a location that until recently was a disused privy council courtroom built to hear court cases from Commonwealth nations.
The briefing room will get its first public airing on Monday, when Johnson transfers his coronavirus press conference to the location. But there is one concern that is harder to fix: the decision to install a background that is incredibly easy to Photoshop in order to make memes of the prime minister or his spokesperson.
One person who has seen the set up asked: “Why was there no one in there pointing out that you’ve built a blue screen?”