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OPINION: Time Downing Street opened up the political floor to some other questions

PUBLISHED: 08:51 04 April 2020 | UPDATED: 08:51 04 April 2020

Public Health England medical director Yvonne Doyle. Picture: Pippa Fowles/Crown Copyright/10 Downing Street

Public Health England medical director Yvonne Doyle. Picture: Pippa Fowles/Crown Copyright/10 Downing Street

Norfolk-based freelance writer and former Eastern Daily Press health correspondent Mark Nicholls says it’s time to freshen up the daily Downing Street coronavirus press conferences if the nation is to remain informed

The daily Downing Street press conference set up by No.10 almost two weeks ago was heralded as a way to keep the nation informed about latest coronavirus developments with major announcements, changes of tack unveiled, and questions from journalists.

But over the last few days, this daily event seems to have become a little staid, and even stage-managed.

Having switched – quite rightly – from a face-to-face event, it has more recently been an e-conference with questions asked remotely of the presenting minister and senior health officials.

Of late, that has been presented by ‘second tier’ officials; understandable given the fact that prime minister Boris Johnson, health secretary Matt Hancock and chief medical officer Chris Whitty, have been self-isolating after testing positive for COVID-19 or showing symptoms.

Yet the nation’s ‘leading’ journalists have still been top of the list to ask questions. Laura Kuenssberg (BBC), Robert Peston (ITV) and Beth Rigby (Sky) tend to ask the first questions, and in the initial briefings perhaps that was appropriate.

But I am now beginning to doubt the necessity, or validity, of this “pecking order.”

It feels uncomfortable saying this - having spent more than 30 years as a journalist – but this adherence to the “big three” hogging the questioning is where the problem now lies within these daily briefings.

Exacerbating this, is their style of questioning: night after night from them, we hear a long ramble, often more opinion that question, before asking the minister or health official about PPE, testing, or help for industry etc.

This ramble is compounded by the fact that rather than one journalist asking one question of one panellist, they feel they are entitled to ask second and third questions, often of different officials or ministers.

This presents a number of problems: it takes up time that other media outlets may have wanted to use to ask questions; the approach is scattergun rather than targeted; it can confuse the viewer; and it makes it easier for a minister or health official to gloss over some of the questions, give lightweight answers, or simply move on to another journalistic question when they decide.

Of course, some observers have suggested the opportunity to ask follow-up questions or push points – but then we may end up in a Paxman-style of quizzing and relentlessly pursuing the interview subject, eating into the time allocated for the briefing.

The scenario we as viewers are being presented with is becoming tiresome, with senior broadcast journalists – who apparently seem to like the sound of their own voices – hogging airtime when I believe there are at this stage of the pandemic, others within the media better now placed to be asking the questions.

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That is why I think it is time for a fresh approach to these daily Downing Street briefings.

I can see why BBC, ITV and Sky want their highly-paid senior journalists to be seen to be asking the questions but first and foremost, this coronavirus pandemic is a health crisis and needs informed health journalists to have an opportunity to ask some questions, rather than political (Kuenssberg/Rigby) or business (Peston) specialists.

Yes, there is a time for them to have some air time, but not all of it. Indeed, one of my Twitter followers commented recently how they have started switching the briefing off when the questions start because it has become so egotistical.

I would like to see other journalists – informed health journalists – offered the opportunity to ask questions as it is they who have the knowledge and expertise to ask relevant, meaningful questions that will lead to better answers and in turn a better-informed audience.

Experienced health specialists such as Fergus Walsh at the BBC or Shaun Lintern from the Independent, or specialist writers from Pulse, the Health Service Journal or other specialist magazines, should be given a platform to question the government. The Medical Journalists’ Association has numerous highly-skilled members with the knowledge and expertise, queuing up to ask incisive questions.

And we should allow regional journalists the opportunity too, as it finally seems was happening on Friday night.

A correspondent from Archant (Chris Hill as the food and farming editor, for example), writers from the Yorkshire Post or Manchester Evening News, dare I venture; or from Anglia TV (Matthew Hudson), or BBC Look East’s Alex Dunlop should also have the opportunity to ask questions. All are highly-skilled, experienced and would offer a more informative tack to the staid questioning we are increasingly seeing at the moment from the daily briefings.

I am sure the answers these journalists would extract would sit more comfortably with their viewers and readers than those of Kuenssberg, Rigby or Peston.

None of this will dilute the impact of the conferences as the answers given will still be available to all media outlets, as well as the nation as a whole.

And far from regionalising the questioning, this would offer a whole new dimension to the information coming out of No.10 and be a helpful diversion from the London-centric approach. And as we all know, the views and outlook in London can be much different to that in the regions.

The daily Downing Street briefing is becoming stagnant in its present form.

While it is easy and fashionable to blame the government for this and many other things, and accuse ministers of side-stepping pertinent points, I have to concede that in this instance it is a journalistic, not 
a political, change that is required.

Such a step will help freshen up these briefings.

Not only will it offer a remedy and deliver a refreshing new dimension to the questioning (and hopefully the answers), it will also help retain public attention and ensure the nation remains better informed about the frightening crisis we are all facing.


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