27/04/2020. London, United Kingdom. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a statement outside 10 Downing Street, as he returns to work following recovering from Coronavirus at Chequers. Picture by Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street. © Crown copyright
I decided not to watch the coronavirus press conference the other day. I heard the names of the speakers and decided they weren’t the performers I wanted. Never mind the news, I wanted a different leading man. And that tells me something about what has quickly become a tradition. These events, intended to convey news, have become a bizarre form of entertainment. That’s partly because they are not what we expect from politicians in the UK. In this country, televised government press conferences and direct media addresses by politicians to the public are rare. The question is whether these will remain post coronavirus and whether they are a good idea.
There is a very different tradition in the US. It was JFK who realised the theatrical possibilities of the press conference. The practice existed before his Presidency but he gave it stardust. Since then US Presidents have shown a range of approaches. But whether the President appears or not , the press secretary’s televised briefings are a regular staple of US politics. That means viewers can get familiar with the journalists and the press team. And of course it is all on the record.
The US also has much more of a tradition of the President speaking directly to citizens. FDR’s fireside chats became famous. They became the weekly radio address (put on hold by Trump). US viewers are also used to direct TV statements and to the State of the Union speech (which despite being an address to Congress is actually aimed elsewhere).
Of course a US President is directly elected while a UK Prime Minister is not. This in part explains the relative lack of direct address here. Apart from at times of war, these are rare. Theresa May’s deliberate TV address to voters, ahead of a 2019 European meeting on Brexit, shocked many, partly because of the content but also because of the mechanism. Speaking directly to camera and flanked by union jacks she said this:
“You’re tired of the infighting, you’re tired of the political games and the arcane procedural rows, tired of MPs talking about nothing else but Brexit when you have real concerns about our children’s schools, our National Health Service, knife crime. You want this stage of the Brexit process to be over and done with. I agree. I am on your side. It is now time for MPs to decide.”
Criticism flooded in. Many felt that May was talking to the wrong audience.
Outside diplomatic events, televised press conferences are equally rare in the UK. Governments have at times used this as sort of Review of the Year events, or to mark something beginning, but for the most part interactions between the government and the press are done behind closed doors. The lobby – the group of journalists with special access – even have a briefing referred to as “the huddle”. Every now and then there is a campaign for briefings to be recorded and published. And for a while some basic text did appear. Live tweeting was also allowed after a row earlier this year. But as a general rule this self-policing group prefer the shadows. And it suits the government to keep briefings out of the public gaze.
Once the immediate crisis is over, and there is no felt need for a daily update, will things go back to normal media-wise? And should they?
There is no doubt that allowing the government to directly address the population on a regular basis creates difficulties. There are very real problems of balance and democracy. There is a reason why broadcasters have to be politically neutral. There is a reason why Party Political Broadcasts are allocated according to a formula. Would there have to be equal time given to the opposition? And if so what about smaller parties? Outside a crisis it seems clear that allowing too much government advantage poses a problem.
But what about press briefings? If these were more visible, argue some, the more harmful off- the -record spinning would be restricted. Citizens would be able to see what was said and what was asked, and draw their own conclusions. They would also be able to see whether some press spokespeople really were bullies as has been reported.
Of course televised press briefings don’t stop off-the-record conversations or more private information. They simply mean the interactions take place somewhere else.
So after this period of unusual apparent openness I suspect the media environment will return to its old ways. And the government may find that our willingness to hear more direct messages is rather limited.
Paula Keaveney is Programme Leader for Politics at Edge Hill University.