In 38 years as a Westminster journalist, the last 21 for The Independent, I have witnessed many bouts of arm-wrestling as politicians of different hues tried to tame the media beast and tilt the balance of this tense relationship in their favour.
Today, relations have sunk to their lowest ebb in my time. On Monday, Downing Street excluded several non Conservative-supporting outlets, including The Independent, from a briefing about the UK-EU trade deal talks. The invited journalists rightly boycotted it in solidarity.
Some readers, and some No 10 aides, will doubtless think the widespread media coverage of this storm in an egg cup is self-serving. But it matters. The decision crossed a line.
I have attended – and been excluded from – many selective briefings over the years by party political aides now known as “spads” (short for special advisers). But I cannot recall such a meeting being held by a politically neutral civil servant, as Monday’s was going to be – David Frost, Boris Johnson’s Europe adviser, who will lead the negotiations. So this was different.
The 150-year old lobby of some 250 Westminster-based journalists knew the writing was on the wall. Lee Cain, the Downing Street director of communications, wasted no time to exploit the power of Johnson’s huge majority. He unilaterally decided that the twice-daily lobby briefings would be held at 9 Downing Street rather than at the Palace of Westminster. This makes it hard for media organisations with small staffs to attend, and led to protests from the Society of Editors. Cain played hardball, even refusing to meet the lobby to discuss the matter – a deliberate break with tradition.
As well as making it harder for the media to question the government, the move raised fears that No 10 would soon herd the journalists into sheep and goats, excluding those who do not toe the line from briefings on its home ground. It took only a few weeks to happen.
The parallels with Donald Trump’s attacks on the “fake news media” are inevitable – and accurate. Like Trump, Team Boris wants to gets its message directly to voters unmediated by what it views as an anachronistic Westminster institution out of touch with the real world. The architect of this strategy is Dominic Cummings, who wrote in a blog post last month: “In SW1 communication is generally treated as almost synonymous with ‘talking to the lobby’. This is partly why so much punditry is ‘narrative from noise’. With no election for years and huge changes in the digital world, there is a chance and a need to do things very differently.”
When I joined the lobby in 1982, a veteran political editor took me to one side and whispered: “Maintain the mystique.” The lobby rules dictated we could not even attribute the twice-daily briefings to Downing Street; they were from anonymous “Whitehall sources”. But the system has reformed, slowly. In 1991, referring to No 10 was allowed after The Independent, The Guardian, The Scotsman and The Economist withdrew from the briefings.
Under New Labour, the briefings were finally attributed to the prime minister’s official spokesman. The Alastair Campbell era is viewed with admiration by some Tory spin doctors. In opposition, Tony Blair had adopted an aggressive stance towards the media. He once told me that “never again” would Labour allow the media to dish out the abuse directed at Neil Kinnock, one of his predecessors. Blair also supped with the media devil in Rupert Murdoch.
Oppositions rely on headlines but Blair discovered that, in government, spin is no substitute for policy. The Campbell era ended with the dossier about Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, after the spinners cherry-picked the intelligence. Campbell’s briefings were taken over by two civil servants. The message was: “No spin is the new spin.”
David Cameron copied the Blair playbook, seeing it as basic professionalism. Theresa May recoiled from it, refusing to govern by headline. Team Boris likewise rejected the approach of its predecessor.
Johnson aides might view waging war on the lobby as part of its populist “us vs them” battle against the establishment. It worked at the election, after all. I suspect it is about a wider strategy which includes rationing Johnson’s appearances and avoiding difficult questions from those, whether seasoned lobby hacks or the BBC’s Andrew Neil, who know what to ask.
Johnson also rations his appearances at the Commons despatch box. Since the election, 30 minutes a week of Prime Minister’s Questions is all we get. There’s talk of him being chairman of the board; a good delegator, as he was as London mayor.
The image is misleading, and I doubt it will last. Every Downing Street operation I have known could not resist the temptation to interfere obsessively in Whitehall departments. This one is no different.
Johnson might be riding high now. But it won’t last; it never does. Events, whether in foreign fields or closer to home, will blow the best political operation in the world off course. When that happens, Team Boris will need the traditional media more than it thinks it does now.
As Monday’s walkout by the approved media showed, Johnson will discover he has fewer friends as a result of following the Trump playbook now, and that the pen is mightier than the sword.