Commons leader scraps 'uncomfortable' press briefings

Harriet Harman pulled out of giving weekly briefings to political journalists because they were too “uncomfortable”, parliament was told today.

Ben Brogan, political editor of the Daily Mail and chairman of the lobby, told peers that the leader of the Commons had abandoned the traditional weekly briefings on the following week’s business, which allowed political reporters to question her about government policy.

Brogan, and other national and regional journalists, were questioned by the House of Lords communications committee which is inquiring into whether media relations with the government have improved since they were reviewed in 2004 by a former Guardian Media Group chief executive, Bob Phillis.

One of the recommendations by the Phillis review was that a minister should brief the media in televised briefings. The recommendation was not accepted by the Government, which has continued twice-daily briefings to political journalists by the prime minister’s spokesman, now Michael Ellam.

Brogan told the committee, headed by former Times journalist Lord Fowler, that lobby journalists would be “very keen” to meet a minister on a daily or weekly basis to question him or her about government policy.

He said there had been occasions when this had happened in the past and the media had benefited because they had got “great stories out of it”.

“It is a risky proposition,” he said. “Ministers are quite risk-averse in the sense they don’t want to put themselves in a situation where they have to face questions about things that are outside their brief.

“They tend to be very uncomfortable about that. I suspect that was one of the reasons why Harriet Harman has pulled out of talking to the lobby.”

He said Harman “didn’t want to expose herself to the dangers” of answering questions that went beyond parliamenntary business.

Brogan said, as chairman of the lobby, he had to deal with complaints from regional political journalists about the way they were treated by Whitehall departments.

David Ottewell, chief correspondent for the Manchester Evening News, told peers: “We are treated as poor relations.”

Chris Fisher, political editor at the Eastern Daily Press, said Downing Street no longer gave weekly briefings to regional political correspondents, adding: “Spin doctors are obsessed with the national media.”

Bob Ledwidge, the BBC’s editor of regional polticial programmes, added: “There is a culture of forgetfulness when it comes to the regional media.”

He said Whitehall press officers should be instructed “to think regional and local when announcements are made”.

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