The Ministerial boycott of Today continues as Downing Street is suspected, by some, of seeking to weaken the lobby system by changing its daily briefing procedure. During the election, Boris Johnson was criticised for his refusal to be interviewed by Andrew Neil.
To cut a long story short, Number Ten stands accused of seeking to ensure that the Government avoids legitimate scrutiny. What is Team Johnson’s side of the story? And what should we make of it all?
The different elements need disentangling.
First, Downing Street is excoriating about Today. Its take is that the programme is Londoncentric, reflexively left-leaning, staffed by Guardian readers (“they must account for 20 per cent of the paper’s sales”) and incapable of thinking outside its own bubble.
If you want to get a sense of what Team Johnson thinks, read this article by a former senior member of…Team May. Robbie Gibb was her Director of Communications and is a former head of BBC Westminster – so he has played, as it were, for both teams.
“[Today] spectacularly misread the politics of the election with endless outside broadcasts in universities, full of interviews with Left-wing, entitled, virtue-signalling students,” he wrote. Number Ten speaks in much the same terms.
Second, it says that the Government is not seeking to avoid scrutiny – no surprises there – though it admits to making exceptions of Kay Burley (with whom there is a stand-off over her treatment of James Cleverly), Piers Morgan (its view is that he simply provides “TV clips for Twitter”)…and Today.
Talking of which, it’s worth noting that Boris Johnson was interviewed on the programme by Nick Robinson during last year’s Conservative conference. “We knew that although the interview would be tough it wouldn’t be an exercise in Gotcha Journalism,” this site was told.
Number Ten’s account of the daily lobby briefing is that it wants a more formal process and that the change of venue will allow lobby journalists to have more briefings from advisers and officials. The Lobby correspondents’ committee is pressing for a compromise over the venue, which has been moved to 9 Downing Street.
Third – and most interestingly in our view – Team Johnson wants an overhaul of the Government’s communications. This should be seen in the light of the Prime Minister’s call in Cabinet this week for “the slaughtering of sacred cows” – i.e: the culling of spending programmes.
The Conservative election campaign showed how alert the Party now is to getting its message out on Facebook and YouTube. This site was told that “when Dominic Cummings was at the Education Department, there was a cull of press officers”. There is a belief that government can get a better bang for its buck with fewer staff.
Whether civil servants can or should be able to operate like Topham and Guerin – see Johnson’s campaign tea break interview or the Love Actually parody – is an interesting question. But Downing Street believes that Government communications are ripe for radical change and new thinking.
So what to make of it all? The place to start is with the election campaign. Johnson was given a rough ride by much of the media – which is just as it should be. The reason isn’t primarily that these were hostile to him (though bits were; others parts, of course, were hostile to Jeremy Corbyn).
Rather, it is that journalists believe that politicians, and those who work for them shouldn’t dictate the terms of election campaigns. The collective view of our fellow hacks was that control of December’s should lie with them – not Isaac Levido. Particularly since Johnson was seen as the front runner throughout, pretty much.
So there is a strong sense at the top of the Conservative Party that the election found much of the media wanting. It wanted to focus on whether, for example, the Prime Minister hid in a fridge – or on his response to the story of a sick child who had to sleep on the floor of a Leeds Hospital.
The mass of voters by-passed nearly all of this, and gave Johnson a near-landslide. No wonder that Number Ten seems to think that the Ministerial boycott of Today is sustainable. More broadly, it wants the Prime Minister to do less media and other Ministers to do more.
This is a familiar refrain from the centre at the start of a new Government. But it just may be that Johnson’s response to the Iran crisis – namely, to let Dominic Raab and Ben Wallace take the public strain – turns out to be the part of a sustained shift. Downing Street is in a mood to take complaints about Johnson’s holiday in its stride.
It knows very well that fewer people are reading newspapers; that younger people don’t consume TV news in the way that older people do, and that social media continues to change the way people consume politics. The site suspects that the rumpus over Today and that Andrew Neil non-interview are the wave of the future.
And we confess to having mixed feelings about it.
On the one hand, the broadcasters can get too big for their boots. (As a non-broadcaster, by and large, this site is doubtless biased.) Some behaving as though, for example, TV debates should frame election campaigns.
They shouldn’t – and nor should interviews with politicians degenerate into variations of Gotcha Journalism. Unless we want political journalism in Britain to vanish into a perpetual Fake News row. A Michael Gove’s Channel 4 interview during the campaign, in which precisely that happened, may be a sign of things to come.
On the other hand, Johnson ducking the Neil interview was ominous. Admittedly, there was something slightly absurd about the latter’s public challenge to the Prime Minister during the campaign. After all, no-one has elected Neil, for all his merits as an interviewer, to run the country.
But there is an impalpable yet powerful benefit to having impartial broadcasters who hold politicians to account in ways that command public consent – and can pull big audiences. Unless we want a culture in which people of different political views consume news that exists only to inflame their own prejudices.
The danger for the BBC as a public service broadcaster is that this consent will erode if it can’t adapt to the coming post-Brexit Britain. Particular since it depends on a form of funding, the licence fee, whose level is soon up for negotiation – and which is unsustainable even in the medium-term.