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Thursday, 2 May, 2002, 18:26 GMT 19:26 UK
Another twist to the spin?
Alastair Campbell
Alastair Campbell made the briefings theatre
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By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Tony Blair's decision to abandon the twice-daily lobby briefings is being portrayed by Downing Street as part of the government's agenda of openness and transparency.

No longer will a small group of specially accredited journalists be given privileged access to the prime minister's official spokesman twice a day.

Sir Bernard Ingham famously once described a minister as "semi-detached"

Instead, US style press conferences - occasionally televised - will be held each day and will be open to any journalist.

There is no doubt that this move will make the process more open - but not by much.

The old days when lobby reporters were given secret, off-the-record briefings which gave privileged insights into government thinking have long gone.

Going public

They did once go on - but not for decades.

Even under previous administrations it is hard to think of anything that the prime minister's spokesman would have said in the lobby that he would not have been prepared to see attributed to him in public.

There were exceptions, of course. Mrs Thatcher's former press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham famously once described a minister as "semi-detached", which was the surest possible sign that he was about to get the boot - which he did.

Godric Smith
Godric Smith is one of Blair's current spokesmen
The greatest issue there, however, was less what was said but the fact it had been said by a civil servant who was supposed to be impartial.

New Labour, under the control of Tony Blair's spin doctor Alastair Campbell, quickly moved to put the daily briefings on the record - meaning anything said in them could be quoted, although the spokesman could not be named.

That had the effect of making the spokesman even more circumspect and reduced to zero the already negligible likelihood of anything sensational coming from the briefings.

Less theatre

While Alastair gave the briefings his manner, regularly aggressive and often amusing, did give insights into the way the prime minister was thinking.

But since he has taken a back seat, there has been far less theatre. The current spokesmen are pretty tight lipped - as civil servants should be.

By opening the process up it may well have the effect of weakening the media's ability to cross examine the prime minister

For years now, the briefings have simply been formal ways of getting information about the government's business of the day and of getting the prime minister's reportable views on issues.

It is hard to see how the changes proposed will have much effect on that process, with one exception.

The briefings are currently relatively small gatherings, where journalists from all parts of the media get a look in.

This move may turn them into mass press conferences where the spokesman has more opportunity to limit the number of questions - and who asks them.

In other words, by opening the process up it may well have the effect of weakening the media's ability to cross examine the prime minister, through his spokesman.

Private whisperings

The offer to put up ministers from time to time is neither here nor there. That already happens when the government thinks such a press conference - televised or otherwise - would be useful to it.

And, of course, the famous "white Commonwealth" approach to briefings - where certain favoured journalists are privately given more revealing briefings - will continue to thrive.

But that happens in every area of journalism and will never die.

So, until this proposal has been put into proactive for a time, it is hard to see how it will make much difference to the process of questioning the government.

The fear is that it will have the effect of turning every briefing into a media circus with little chance for real, concentrated questioning.

In other words, it is suspected that this is just another bit of spin from the kings of spin.

The BBC's Norman Smith
"The lobby... takes place twice a day"
See also:

14 Jun 00 | UK Politics
New press chief at Number 10
02 May 02 | UK Politics
'Farewell' to a semi-secret clique
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