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 An outdated aspect of politics was being thrown open; reporters would prod spokesmen out of their lazy, spin-driven generalisations and put Downing Street "on the spot".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 An outdated aspect of politics was being thrown open; reporters would prod spokesmen out of their lazy, spin-driven generalisations and put Downing Street "on the spot".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
Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Sport
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
News
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Sport
Jose Mourinho on Sky Sports
footballEXCLUSIVE COLUMN Paul Scholes: It was not a leg-breaking tackle, as the Chelsea manager had claimed
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: Senior Web Developer - C# / ASP.NET - London - £55K

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Web Deve...

SThree: Internal Recruitment Consultant (In-House)

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: Are you an ambitious, money moti...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Graphic Designer - Peterborough - £18,000

£22000 - £23000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Graduate Graphic Designer...

Sphere Digital Recruitment: Sales Manager / Account Director – DSP / Ad tech / RTB

£50,000- £70,000 + commission : Sphere Digital Recruitment: This DSP is an onl...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower