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 An outdated aspect of politics was being thrown open; reporters would prod spokesmen out of their lazy, spin-driven generalisations and put Downing Street "on the spot".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 An outdated aspect of politics was being thrown open; reporters would prod spokesmen out of their lazy, spin-driven generalisations and put Downing Street "on the spot".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.

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