Richard North, 15/08/2019  

In a low-key sort of way, history was made yesterday when Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson sought deliberately to by-pass the legacy media and engage with Facebook members in what he called the first ever People's PMQs.

Apparently watched live by only 7,000 people, and recording 50,000 views in the first half hour, they nonetheless attracted a lot of attention from the legacy media, followed by extensive comment. The likes of the Mail online, for instance, piled in with a long critique.

Wrote Jan Moir for the Mail, the People's PMQs was beamed out across the nation on laptops, PC screens and smartphones and, "for worker bee Boris it was live, it was real". It was, she said, "reaching out to the electorate instead of soft soaping enemy armpits within the Westminster bubble".

According to the pre-publicity, it was also supposed to be "edgy and spontaneous", but Moir was not impressed. The man occupying the post of prime minister, she asserted, had promised that the twelve minute Facebook session would be "unpasteurised and unmediated", which suggested "great squirts of raw milk hosed straight from the teat of truth".

Instead, she wrote, "all we got was the usual true blue-veined cheese spread on some really nutty crackers, with questions pre-selected by his aides".

To that, she added: "there is very little accountability or rigour in answering hand-picked softball questions in this manner without comeback or query, then seamlessly moving on to the next". It was not really a Q&A session, she said, more of a monologue, although she conceded that Johnson "did it very well indeed".

It is perhaps this "success" which brought into play Jim Waterson, media editor for the Guardian. Taking a dim view of the whole affair, he was worried that it showed how political parties were increasingly able to bypass journalists' scrutiny – confident that traditional media outlets would, in any eventuality, still report on sanitised official broadcasts.

Waterson's thesis is not without merit, notwithstanding that the Telegraph has long-since given up even a pretence of scrutiny, as it relentlessly promotes its favourite son.

The Guardian journalist argues that the attraction of Johnson's approach for Downing Street is clear. "Why bother", Waterson posits, "holding a regular prime ministerial press conference for Westminster journalists who will ask about tricky subjects if you can select the questions yourself?"

"Why bother", he continues, "trying to influence traditional media outlets by submitting the prime minister to a tough one-on-one interview that could backfire – as Johnson found out during an excruciating encounter with Eddie Mair in 2013 – when you can cut out the middleman and reach the audience directly?"

"And why bother inviting cameras from the BBC or ITV to Downing Street", he asks when No 10 officials can frame the camera shot themselves? This way they can portray Johnson exactly as they wish".

More importantly, we are told, Downing Street is confident that broadcasters and news outlets starved of their own access to politicians will end up using the footage and quotes regardless".

If No 10 wants to provoke an argument, it can do so. If it wants to avoid scrutiny, it can equally do so. And it can accuse opposition to such an online-first approach as coming from a jealous anti-Brexit media who wouldn't give Johnson a fair crack of the whip in any case.

Yet, for all the outrage, there is also a strong element of special pleading from a member of a discredited trade which might be more concerned about its own loss of influence than it is any real determination to put politicians under the spotlight.

Having for many years watched the antics of the fourth estate, one finds that most of the time, in press conferences, the trivial and superficial questions asked by the media are embarrassing. Largely, their questioning is a waste of time and space - massively lost opportunities when, as is so often, they don't even know the right questions to ask and, even if they did, they would not be interested in asking them.

For me, this came to a head as long ago as August 2008 when, at great expense, a substantial part of the Westminster press corps was flown out to Afghanistan, accompanying the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, who was to meet the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, to discuss future cooperation.

Amongst the journalists was the BBC's then political correspondent Jo Coburn, who filed a report on her experiences. But, as I noted at the time, when it came to the press conference in the presidential palace in Kabul, with Brown and Karzai, the media was at its loathsome worst.

The two men, wrote Coburn, "appeared before a packed room of journalists, mainly Afghan and there were warm words of friendship for the prime minister from President Hamid Karzai". But, she continued:
… if Gordon Brown had thought he would be asked about the future cooperation between the two countries then he was sorely disappointed. All of us wanted to press him on the future of his leadership. Did he accept his strategy up until now had been wrong? What were his relations like with his foreign secretary, David Miliband, amid tales of political plotting?
Shortly afterwards, I spoke to a very senior official who had been present at the press conference, and the disgusting display of venality had not escaped attention.

It was behaviour like this, repeated many times down the years, which has driven governments to look for alternative means of spreading their messages. Johnson, in this sense, is only at the end of a long line of politicians who have lost faith in the media – ironic given his own part in its descent into trivia and misrepresentation.

Elsewhere, on his blog, Pete discusses the role of the media and "the dominance of legacy titles deliberately feeding misinformation into the debate through regular channels".

BBC apart, it has always been the case, he says, that newspapers are answerable to their corporate owners and advertisers. But now we are subjected to no holds barred propaganda that has strongly influenced public perceptions. There has, for instance, been an ongoing campaign to mislead the public in respect of the viability of WTO rules as a basis for Brexit, with numerous allied vessels promoting the same messages. Adds Pete:
This is nothing at all to do with the potency of internet advertising, rather it has to do with nepotistic, incestuous nature of the politico-media bubble and the prevailing groupthinks therein. This is as much to do with the tribalism within Westminster and the propensity to evaluate sources on the basis of prestige and proximity to power. Much is taken on trust on the basis of its adherence to tribal scripture. You can get followers to believe virtually anything provided it carries institutional prestige or recognition from a gatekeeper within the tribal hierarchy.
It is quite understandable, therefore, that if the politicians want to mislead the electorate, they should want to go direct and cut out the middle-men with their own spin and their own agendas.

Pete argues that, to get round this, we need to break the Westminster system – and I would not disagree. From within the bubble, though, the Guardian's Waterson calls on the entire media industry to refuse to run quotes from this sanitised version of a press conference. Otherwise, he fears, "Downing Street and other political parties are likely to increasingly pursue this route".

What he doesn't understand, though, is that having sown the wind, the media is about to reap the whirlwind as politicians increasingly realise that they have the means to communicate directly with their voters, without the intermediate filter, using in-house news creation.

And it truly is ironic that it should be one of their own who leads the way.

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