PM’s plan for daily TV show doomed to fail

If ever there was a job offer to avoid, it’s as the spokesperson leading Boris Johnson’s proposed daily televised briefings. And, god forbid, if the aim is to ape what Trump repeatedly demonstrates is a patently bad idea, the PM has not thought this through.

Peter Hehir does not believe daily televised press briefings will work out well for the Prime Minister
Peter Hehir does not believe daily televised press briefings will work out well for the Prime Minister

This new job is to build on the “success” of the pandemic TV shows – a dangerous misunderstanding of the public’s view of these turgid and confusing performances by a revolving cast of underperformers.

Even the job description is confused. While the candidates must have “excellent risk-management skills”, the winner may well be a “senior journalist”.  

Journalists don’t manage risks, and they have no experience of working at the top of big, complex and modern organisations. 

Successful tabloid journalists need a single skill: to rapidly gather information they can turn into eye-catching copy. The only real risk they – or the lawyers – manage is libel. And none of the national newspaper publishers is a model of best practice management techniques – although that, at least, means Downing Street will feel familiar. 

The Prime Minister earned his living as a journalist. So did Lee Cain, his official spokesman; James Slack, also described as an official spokesman; and Jack Doyle, a press secretary. Already, that’s four journalists discussing tactics.

The new recruit will “communicate with the nation” each night. A phrase redolent of King George VI’s quavering voice on wartime radio. Perhaps we shall be expected to stand to hear this communication.

Meanwhile, and off-camera, the press Lobby will be briefed on the same material by Cain.

The expectation that their messages will be communicated seamlessly to the Lobby and the public is, at best, wishful thinking. 

Effective communication relies on both a clear and credible storyline and the authenticity of the messenger. 

The story so far is hardly credible, given the dysfunctional handling of this pandemic and the looming spectre of a chaotic no-deal Brexit.

Could anyone possibly weave a positive picture of this unprecedented turmoil?

That leaves the authenticity. This new spokesperson is likely to be unknown to the public, so authenticity will have to derive from his boss. Boris Johnson came to the fore with a supposedly outstanding ability to communicate. Even his most loyal followers have been disabused of that by now.

Meanwhile, sharpening their knives will be resentful Tory backbenchers, an invigorated Labour frontbench and the strident SNP, all demanding that the PM should first discuss policy with them, not the media.

Johnson recently announced that the pandemic would be over by Christmas. The last time that line was communicated to the British public was in 1914.

And, finally, the elephant in the room. The deus ex machina of this government – Dominic Cummings. 

Would you want to try to be an authentic storyteller under him?

Peter Hehir is a former chair of Porter Novelli International, the PRCA and ICCO

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