Inside Story: Oh no, not you lot again

Every month Tony Blair gives a press conference in Downing Street - and this is what confronts him. Ben Russell reports. Photograph by Helen Atkinson
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The Independent Online

His holiday over, Tony Blair will return to prime ministerial duty this week, among his upcoming challenges the business of facing the media for the monthly press conference that he instituted in 2001. This photograph - taking at his most recent press conference in early August - provides a PM's eye view of the state dining room in Downing Street as reporters, from both newspapers and broadcast media, gather to put him on the spot.

The elaborate, wood-panelled room, with its vaulted ceiling, was designed by Sir John Soane and is used for state banquets. It accommodates around 80 journalists. Mr Blair stands behind a lectern, often clutching a mug of tea - delivered by a Downing Street aide - as he addresses reporters. A pen lies in front of him, although he rarely uses it. He makes a point of calling reporters by their first names.

The conferences are an innovation by Mr Blair, dating from a time when there was a general move to open up the lobby process. He can face questions on any topic. Reporters do not submit details of the questions in advance, and Mr Blair does not control the topics discussed. He makes an opening statement, often about the progress he says has been made in delivering the Government's agenda. But he knows that the journalists will want to pursue their own agenda on whatever is the burning issue - or crisis - of the moment.

The Prime Minister chairs the press conferences personally, picking out senior national correspondents and writers, representatives from foreign media and the regional press. A few - normally broadcasters with an eye to their own bulletins - come back to challenge the Prime Minister's answers. Reporters invariably pitch questions in several parts, but are generally limited to one question each, and there is little of the persistent questioning or heat that can characterise lobby briefings by the Prime Minister's official spokesman.

Mr Blair stands alone, but occasionally gives reporters a computer PowerPoint presentation, first using the technology in 2004. The conferences are broadcast live and in full on the 24-hour news channels, even though they can last for more than an hour.

The date is not fixed more than a few days in advance. Late morning is the preferred time of day, and like a boxer challenging his opponent to go a few more rounds, and knowing that the assembled hacks like their lunch, Mr Blair normally says soon after 1pm: "Right, how many more questions? Two? Three?"

There is no seating plan but the BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, and his predecessor Andrew Marr, tend to occupy the prime location at the front of the pack.

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