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Lesson from America on TV's decline

If the American experience is anything to go by, John Major may soon realise that formal televised press conferences are not what they used to be - if they ever were in the first place.

The practice that is commonly but mistakenly held to be central to the relationship between executive power and public opinion in the US arguably was most influential in its early days under President Kennedy, whose his high ratings owed much to his wit and grace before the White House press.

Thereafter, each president gave his own flavour to the occasion, but Bill Clinton - more suspicious of the press than any president since Nixon - held barely half a dozen press conferences in his entire first term.

In truth, it hardly matters - a fact acknowledged in April 1995, when two of the three big networks, NBC and ABC, for the first time refused to air a prime-time Clinton news conference. CBS did, and attracted a 6.8 rating, less than half the 15.8 registered by ABC's Home Improve- ment sitcom.

Now the Cold War is over, humanity does not hang on every word from the man with his finger on the nuclear button. A truly important presidential an- nouncement comes in a 10-15 minute address from the Oval Office, not at a rambling, scattershot press conference.

In 10 months before the 1996 election, Mr Clinton gave just two set- piece press conferences - but his coverage suffered not a whit because of it.