Voices: Liz Truss can’t run from rigorous public scrutiny forever

Truss was put through her paces at the final hustings of the Conservative leadership contest at Wembley Arena  (Getty)
Truss was put through her paces at the final hustings of the Conservative leadership contest at Wembley Arena (Getty)

One of the enduring images of Boris Johnson’s general election campaign in 2019 was of the prime minister ducking into a fridge to avoid being quizzed on Good Morning Britain.

As far as I know, there were no giant fridges at Wembley Arena last night, where Liz Truss was being put through her paces at the final hustings of the Conservative leadership contest. But while she seems happy to be scrutinised in front of Tory members, she’s rather less willing to engage in a full-length sit-down interview with journalists like the BBC’s Nick Robinson, saying she didn’t have enough time in her schedule to accommodate him.

She has made an exception for a comment piece in The Sun today, but I hope she finds a few extra minutes in the day for crucial scrutiny by the broadcasters too if she takes office.

Over the years, the way prime ministers handle the media has evolved, and how the media handles them has changed too.

Truss’s pin-up Margaret Thatcher engaged with journalists in her own idiosyncratic manner. She and her team could be robust, as in the “handbagging” of John Sergeant when Thatcher’s press secretary elbowed him aside at the British embassy in Paris in 1990. But she also knew how to play the game.

Gender – and the largely male press pack – had a part to play in the rapport between the interviewer and their subject. Some have even suggested there was a flirtatiousness in their dealings with Thatcher.

There was something flirtatious, too, about Tony Blair’s initial love-in with the media, in particular the wooing of the Murdoch press, before the PM and his press team were undone by their own spin.

Is that where it all went wrong? Where the media became more interested in a “gotcha!” moment than more considered discussion? And the politicians became progressively more defensive?

Gordon Brown never had the easy public school charm of his predecessor. Interviews were frustrating affairs, where he relentlessly bombarded his inquisitors with statistics and repeated soundbites. But he still submitted himself to interview. I remember doing one of the last broadcast interviews with him just before the 2010 election he went on to lose. He looked absolutely worn out, broken. I almost felt sorry for him.

Then in bounced ruddy-faced David Cameron, full of the joys of coalition. I’d first encountered him years before he was prime minister, when he was a PR man at Carlton Communications. As media correspondent at the Financial Times, whenever I phoned him up, whatever the story, he invariably issued the same flawless six-word response: “We don’t comment on market speculation.” Said with a smile, but always on-message. It was a well-honed style he preserved throughout his time at No 10.

Theresa May gave the appearance of loathing every moment on screen, and even now, freed from the cares of office, she’s quite content to deliver her halfpenny-worth from the green benches in the Commons rather than the breakfast TV sofa.

Boris Johnson, by contrast, seemed at first to revel in the attention, as he made the transition from journalist to commentator and then politician on camera. When he became an MP we treated him as something of a chat-show entertainer, thrusting pies and muffins in his face when, in 2006, he’d made a quip in his Tory party conference speech about Jamie Oliver’s school dinners crusade.

The then BBC radio host Eddie Mair abruptly changed the tone, asking Johnson – then London mayor – if he was a “nasty piece of work”. The gloves were off and, fearing he’d come off worst in a punch up, he ended up hiding in fridges and staging photo ops where he could stare down a broadband hole.

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So now what do we expect of Truss? I hope the reticence of the campaign is not the shape of things to come. She’s never submitted to a full interview on Channel 4 News during her tenure as foreign secretary. Rishi Sunak, on the other hand, has answered questions in full, including those he clearly rather wouldn’t on his family and his wealth.

Perhaps, on the eve of her premiership, she’ll relent and come on our programme in the next few days. Maybe she’ll grace Laura Kuenssberg with an exclusive on Sunday.

At this moment of national and international crisis, holding the prime minister to account has never been more urgent. We’re not looking for a glib soundbite. People up and down the country want their questions put fairly, incisively and objectively.

We’ll leave the lights on in the Channel 4 studio. But I hope the next prime minister won’t keep us waiting too long. After all, we wouldn’t want to waste energy.

Cathy Newman is presenter and investigations editor of ‘Channel 4 News’