- Noah Keate
Will a daily press conference strengthen British democracy?
One of the staple parts of the coronavirus pandemic, from a news perspective, was the daily government press conference. Every evening at 5pm, a minister and - generally - two scientific advisers, would disclose the latest number of new cases and deaths from or with COVID-19. For many, it was a daily ritual during the height of lockdown and represented the situation’s severity. Over time, the weekend briefings were removed before the press conference was stopped altogether. Now, in a bid to return to some form of ‘normal’, coronavirus press conferences will only take place when important announcements need to be made.
However, a government daily press conference looks set to commence from later this year. Currently, the Conservative party are hiring a Spokesperson who will be the government’s face every evening. There, they will make key announcements and take journalist questions. This is in a bid to make the ‘lobby’ system more transparent. Currently, most major news organisations will have journalists that get to lobby the government spokesperson twice a day. This is done behind closed doors. While the key ‘lines’ from the briefing are disclosed publicly, individuals outside the lobby are unable to make their own judgement on the most important piece of information.
In a sense, this government bid to increase transparency should be welcome. Names such as Allegra Stratton, the former ITV News national editor who currently advises Chancellor Rishi Sunak, are being discussed over who will be the voice of the government. The figure must be recognisable and someone who can easily adapt from reporting the news to making it. While a morning briefing would still remain private, televising the evening briefing, when individuals are likely to be returning home for work, should allow the public to make a more informed view of the government.
On the other hand, transparency is not inevitable. It is rumoured that the government daily press conference has been inspired by White House briefings in the United States. Often regarded as a means for Trump to promote his propaganda, viral clips and quotes from these conferences have gone around the world on numerous occasions. Does this strengthen democracy? If governments are able to repeat their soundbites on a daily occasion, this is not necessarily an example of public service broadcasting. Though journalists can hold politicians to account by questioning, much coverage of media questions during the pandemic has been very critical.
Similarly, the presence of a spokesperson may go against the special adviser code of conduct. According to the Guardian, this states that ‘politically appointed staff cannot speak publicly or engage in political controversy’. Fronting a daily briefing would represent the very opposite. Speaking publicly would be especially damaging if the briefings are used not simply as a means for promoting the government’s work but attacking opposition parties. Although elected ministers can (and do) take part in this all the time, the rules are different for advisers who are unelected.
A daily press conference, as I’ve stated, represents the further Americanisation of UK politics. This is most obvious in the sense that the government may make important announcements at these press conferences instead of at the House of Commons or select committees. This is extremely damaging for democracy if the opportunity for MPs to question and scrutinise the government is reduced. Of course, journalistic scrutiny and a free press is a beacon of a liberal society. However, journalists can only represent their readers and viewers. MPs are accountable to all of their constituents, regardless of how they voted at an election.
The government must be careful in ensuring the briefings do not turn into a Party Political Broadcast for the Conservatives. Those are tightly regulated at election campaigns. During a daily briefing, they would be speaking as the government. Further questions may rise over whether a spokesperson of Keir Starmer should be allowed a right of reply as Leader of the Opposition. All parties are allowed political broadcasts during an election campaign. If the government veer from revealing important news and simply descend into attacking the opposition, then news organisations may choose to not cover the conference live. It’s a difficult line to tread.
Image: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street