The UK Press Briefing Room: Transparency and Open Government or Imported Theatrics?

Written by Sidney Pycroft

The new Downing Street press room, at a reported cost of over £2m, being used for a Coronavirus Briefing.


Open Government. Yes, Minister’s first ever episode and the supposed aim of importing American-style press briefings with a special room too. In this episode Jim Hacker, a fresh new minister, idealistic for lifting the veils on government and the civil service gets tripped up, twisted, and wholeheartedly played by Sir Humphrey Appleby. Humphrey’s explanation of the structure of the civil service around him shows to this day why transparency and open government claims are mostly nonsense:


“Well briefly, sir, I am the Permanent Under Secretary of State, known as the Permanent Secretary. Woolley here is your Principal Private Secretary. I too have a Principal Private Secretary and he is the Principal Private Secretary to the Permanent Secretary. Directly responsible to me are ten Deputy Secretaries, 87 Under Secretaries and 219 Assistant Secretaries. Directly responsible to the Principal Private Secretaries are plain Private Secretaries, and the Prime Minister will be appointing two Parliamentary Under-Secretaries and you will be appointing your own Parliamentary Private Secretary.”


If this is really who decides how government runs then what is the point of these American-style press briefings? We have a monarchical or presidential system whereby the Prime Minister is the stand in for a monarch or president, but they don’t have quite the number of direct powers their counterparts would. But they are just as untouchable. The room itself looks like a cheap tacky set off of some comedy sketch, definitely not warranting the cost of over £2.6 million, especially visually.


The civil service and ministers are not the only ones with political power. This last year scientific advisors, especially SAGE and the original rule maker and rule breaker Neil Ferguson, have become political actors with power in their own right. Scientific advisors continue to flank the PM and ministers, effectively constraining what the politicians can say, as they can never be seen to disagree with their advisors as their advisors have come to represent science itself. Jonathan Van-Tam has even found him some internet stardom, another oddity of 2020.


So, with all these political actors who are not the PM or ministers what is the point of putting a press secretary in front of the media on the daily? It certainly isn’t for the public to hear anything as nothing original will be said. Nor for ministers when the press secretary takes over from Johnson. Or even for the media as anything juicy will get leaked anyway. It appears it is for theatrics.


It appears content-wise we are to be lumbered with a governmental bombardment of doom and gloom every day for the foreseeable future this press room exists. Nothing constructive comes from the White House press briefing room it is being modelled after so why expect different here?


It is ironic that it is the brainchild of Lee Cain, Johnson’s former Director of Communications, as his undoing was Allegra Stratton, the person hired to be the press secretary, when she sided with Carrie Symonds in a brutal power struggle that from the moment Carrie was involved he was fated to lose. This struggle forced the departures of both Cain and Dominic Cummings. Another irony is that Cummings major aim was to take the hammer to the civil service, hence their hatred of him, and with his departure, their continued grip over political business, and the new government press briefing room making people think the PM holds all the power, the civil service may have scored a triple-win.


Theatrics appears to be the goal of the new briefing room, but they really should have made it look better if so. It will be a way for politicians to self-aggrandise, to make them seem intimidating after a year of having unprecedented control over managing peoples’ lives. As is the case with all exultations of transparency there is another agenda at play, and it seems here the goal is to import those awful, bitter, or otherwise impotent press briefings from the US to the UK. This allows whoever from whatever party to stand before the press to say they are being open, by talking through the mouth of a designated loyalist, and wiping their hands of anything else. It is laudable that the government is trying to wrest sole narrative setting power away from the press, but this can obviously easily backfire in the future, as anyone else can use the same tricks. And if an aim is to get the media to like the Tories they must either be stupid or naïve.


Calling it a waste of public funds would deny it has a function, I just don’t like the function. Regular communication will just become a bombardment of government’s presence into people’s everyday lives. After 2020-21 I would prefer less government and less media in my face each day. I feel like once the anxiety and fear of Covid-19 has passed, as it is slowly dying down, many people won’t bother watching. Except, perhaps, for spectacle and entertainment if they really do import the White House-style, at least the hectic press briefings under Trump, under Biden they have been literal snoozefests. But this an atmosphere I’d rather reserve for PMQs, hidden away on BBC Parliament, not daily BBC1 content.


The goal is obviously self-love, glorifying oneself, pretending to talk to the little people of Britain, getting to say whatever they please. But I don’t think I will ever be tuning in at this rate and I wish the government would drop this façade, as it has been proven to always be.


Photo source - Flickr (Number 10)