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EDITIONS
Thursday, 20 June, 2002, 13:11 GMT 14:11 UK
Blair's big TV performance
Prime Minister Tony Blair taking questions from journalists
Open to all questions

It may not have been the feature as billed - but from Tony Blair's point of view, his press conference was an undoubted success.

For more than an hour he took questions on any subject from any journalist allowed into the conference.

He ducked some questions, dismissed a couple out of hand and refused point blank to answer one. But that is what politicians do.
Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair wanted to shift focus

And fears that the questioners would be carefully selected and the conference kept short were unfounded.

In fact, he seemed determined to out-stay the journalists who were noticeably shuffling their feet after about an hour. Many TV viewers had probably switched off long before that.

Reality check

Because, while this was a great exercise in presenting the prime minister as open and accountable, most viewers will not have learned anything new.

The prime minister's main aim was to dismiss the "trivia and froth" - like whether he and his ministers were "habitual liars" and "untrustworthy" - in favour of getting people to concentrate on the "big picture" of improvements to the public services and the economy.

And in that regard he succeeded, primarily by insisting time and again that rows over issues like whether or not he wanted to muscle in on the Queen Mother's lying-in-state were of no interest to the public.

It was all summed up by his remark: "Let's get a reality check on what matters."

But make no mistake, this was NOT the on-the-record, televised lobby briefing as originally spun by Downing Street.

That would have been an entirely different and far more fascinating, even enlightening, event.

Curve ball

This was a straightforward prime ministerial press conference of the sort we see fairly regularly either at EU summits, during foreign tours or when Mr Blair thinks he has something to tell the nation or feels he is in trouble.

Had he really attended a lobby briefing - which is a genuinely rare event - he would not have been allowed to get away with refusing to answer a question about the Queen's relatives living rent virtually free in royal palaces at the taxpayers' expense.

That curve ball came from an American journalist and was dismissed by Mr Blair who simply said he would take a "diplomatic silence".

In a lobby briefing he would have faced persistent questioning in an attempt to force a proper answer from him.

A genuine insight into how these briefings operate would have been revelatory, but that is not about to happen.

Big questions

In fact it is highly likely the briefings - which have seen the prime minister's spokesmen questioned intensively over issues like sleaze - will now be ended by Downing Street.

It will no doubt be claimed that, now the prime minister is facing the press once a month on live TV, they are not needed.

But if he really does hold these press conferences once a month he may be making a rod for his own back.

It will not take many of them before all the big broadbrush questions have been answered and the journalists start focusing in on detail in much the way they do in the lobby.

He will find it increasingly difficult to duck questions, let alone refuse point blank to answer them.

And there will be the danger that his strategy of talking over journalists heads to the voters will start to backfire.

Still, it must be a good thing to have such regular, live broadcast press conferences.

Here's to many more of them.

See also:

17 Jun 02 | UK Politics
12 Jun 02 | UK Politics
20 Jun 02 | UK Politics
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