Johnson moves to White House-style press briefings

By: AFP      Published: 05:37 PM, 9 Oct, 2020
Johnson moves to White House-style press briefings

Boris Johnson has appointed a veteran political journalist to host daily White House-style television briefings, media reports said Friday, in a shake-up of the British premier's media operation.

Allegra Stratton, a Cambridge University graduate who has worked for the BBC, The Guardian newspaper and ITV television, left journalism in April to head communications for finance minister Rishi Sunak.

She has now been poached by Downing Street and is expected to field reporters' questions on camera at new afternoon briefings, under a system Johnson hopes will allow more "direct engagement" with the public.

At the height of the coronavirus outbreak earlier this year, the government held daily televised press conferences, usually with a scientist and a minister.

"People have liked the more direct, detailed information from the government about what's going on," Johnson told LBC radio in July.

"We do think that people want direct engagement and want stuff from us and so we're going to have a go at that," he said, adding that he might "pop up from time to time".

The Conservative leader and his team have had a tricky relationship with the media since he took office.

Earlier this year, the twice-daily briefings with accredited parliamentary journalists -- known as "the lobby" -- were moved from the House of Commons to Downing Street, sparking concern about access.

Despite insisting on the need for greater transparency, some lobby journalists were then excluded from a briefing on Brexit, causing their colleagues to walk out in protest.

Johnson has also taken to using his own personal photographer to chronicle key moments, breaking a long-standing tradition of bringing in someone from an independent media organisation.

For many months ministers also refused to appear on the BBC's flagship Today radio programme, which has more than seven million listeners.

The prime minister's official spokesman, a technically neutral civil servant, is expected to keep briefing the lobby every morning as usual, on the record but off-camera.

Stratton, who will be a political adviser, will take over the afternoon briefings on camera from a new media suite reportedly set up at Number 9 Downing Street, next door to Johnson's office.

The 39-year-old is well regarded in Westminster -- and well connected.

She is married to James Forsyth, the political editor of The Spectator magazine, which Johnson used to edit, and Sunak was best man at their wedding.

"Those who have worked alongside her attest to the presence of the qualities that her new role as press secretary will demand -- an unflappability, sharp intellect, easy articulacy and quick judgment," according to a commentary in The Times.

In response to the new briefings, opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer is planning to hold his own monthly press conferences.

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