Downing St drops plan for TV briefings

By David Rose

Downing Street has quietly dropped plans to put up ministers to take
daily televised briefings following protests by journalists who feared
they would be a waste of time.

The idea was that they would replace the current briefings given by
the Prime Minister’s official spokesman, Tom Kelly, who is a civil
servant.

Tony Blair decided to relegate his spin doctors to the
shadows in response to the independent review of government
communications by Bob Phillis, chief executive of the Guardian Media
Group.

Phillis recommended that ministers should “play a bigger
part in the daily briefings, particularly when their departments have
announcements to make”.

He said ministers should take “a lead role” in the briefings, although Kelly would still have attended.

Announcing
the Government’s acceptance of the change last year, the then Cabinet
Office Minister, Douglas Alexander, said: “It agrees that more
ministers should host Lobby briefings and that these should be open and
televised.

The Government will now enter into discussions with
the relevant public authorities, including Parliament and the
Parliamentary Lobby, on how best to pursue these proposals.”

But
while Blair has continued to hold his monthly televised press
conferences, Downing Street has not presented any minister at any of
the lobby’s daily briefings, which are still taken by Kelly.

Nick
Assinder, chairman of the Parliamentary Lobby Journalists, told Press
Gazette that Lobby journalists had objected to televising Lobby
briefings.

“Downing Street have certainly not mentioned any of this since I became chairman at the beginning of the year.

“The
Lobby has an official position which is against the televising of the
Lobby. Journalists are always happy to see ministers giving
on-the-record, on-camera briefings provided they are additional to, but
not instead of, Lobby briefings, where more sensitive questions can be
asked.”

Sir Christopher Meyer, chairman of the Press Complaints
Commission and former Downing Street press secretary when John Major
was prime minister, warned at the time the plan was doomed.

Speaking
of his experience as a former British ambassador in Washington, he told
the House of Commons Public Administration Committee last year: “In the
US, television cameras are present at the daily White House, State and
Defence Department briefings, but very little, if any, footage survives
to the main news bulletins.”

Meyer then predicted the Lobby would
survive. “Call it ‘lobby’ or what you like, there will always be a
market in the worlds of policy and politics for information conveyed in
ways other than on the record.”

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