Mary Dejevsky: What's so open about White House-style briefings?

When Downing Street said it was ending the system of private lobby briefings and introducing televised news conferences instead, the change was greeted with roars of approval, at least outside the lobby itself. An outdated aspect of politics was being thrown open; reporters would prod spokesmen out of their lazy, spin-driven generalisations and put Downing Street "on the spot".

When Downing Street said it was ending the system of private lobby briefings and introducing televised news conferences instead, the change was greeted with roars of approval, at least outside the lobby itself. An outdated aspect of politics was being thrown open; reporters would prod spokesmen out of their lazy, spin-driven generalisations and put Downing Street "on the spot".

The image conjured up was that of the White House briefing room and the media cut-and-thrust so racily depicted in The West Wing. Downing Street did not discourage the comparison – and why should it? The new system does bring Downing Street closer to the White House way. But the idea that it will generate much greater transparency is misconceived. The real-life White House is not the fount of openness that the show would have us think.

To get into White House briefings, it is not enough to turn up with a press ID. You need White House accreditation, which entails being fingerprinted and security-vetted and having your iris registered for machine recognition. You need a PIN, too. You may be admitted on a one-off basis without all that, but prior notice and much fuss is required, and you must be accompanied.

The White House press corps guards its privileged access jealously. Outsiders are not exactly welcome. Seats in that famous briefing room are labelled, and woe betide you if you take a permanent correspondent's seat. I once watched a mini-duel between a US network television reporter and Michael Brunson, who had inadvertently taken his seat during one of Tony Blair's visits. It wasn't our man from the lobby who won.

The point is that you do not need a closed lobby system to have a closed system of conveying information. Many were the times during my stint in Washington that the "big three" – The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal – and maybe the TV networks would be invited to "pre-briefings" so that they could "spin" (sorry, "break the story of") a presidential initiative or a contentious bill. Once you sussed out the system, as a foreign reporter you could often persuade one of the "big three" to brief you – but they would not do the same for the American competition.

The supposedly open White House system does not preclude "private" one-on-one lunches and high-profile social occasions, such as state banquets, to which reporters deemed friendly are invited. State banquet invitations come as rewards, and invitation lists are keenly watched. This access can be summarily removed, which is why editors think twice before being first to print negative stories.

But does a President not have a press corps in permanent attendance to monitor his every move? And does the Freedom of Information Act mean there is no hiding place for information? Only in part. Reporters learnt only later that Bill Clinton had injured his knee at the Florida home of the golfer Greg Norman. Nor was the Bush team especially forthcoming about Dick Cheney's heart attack.

And that Freedom of Information Act? You have to know exactly what you are looking for, and much of what you get may be crossed out as harmful to national security or some individual's privacy. Shredding documents à la Enron is not the only way to keep secrets. And opening up the lobby will not necessarily increase access to information.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Urgent Requirement - Central Manchester

£20000 - £23000 per annum + 20 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: Marketi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Guru Careers: Social Media Executive / SEO Executive

£20 - 25K + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Social Media...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions