I’m sure it seemed a good idea at the time… it’s one I had myself from time to time, when running the Number 10 media operation – get the regional telly in; get the PM to do a round of one-on-ones that cover the whole country; lead the news on every regional bulletin; get the nationals to pick out the best bits; Bob’s your uncle; or Bob avunculi tui est, as Boris Johnson might put it when lapsing into Latin is his question avoidance tactic of choice.
There is a big difference between then and now, however. I could brief the then prime minister, Tony Blair, who would in any event have absorbed a mass of written material the night before, in between doing a myriad other things and making a myriad other decisions large and small, and then entrust one of my team to sit in the corner of the room, make sure everything kept to time, and wheel the regional reporters in and out for their turn. Whichever Number 10 staffer was in the corner of the room last Friday, as Boris Johnson did a nationwide tour of region by region car crashes from the same comfy chair, will have aged, badly. His heart will have been in his mouth, whereas it was Johnson’s foot that kept going into his.
In the Yorkshire leg of this media schmooze, the hapless corner room staffer got dragged into the car crash. Johnson was asked a very simple factual question by Look North about how much Leeds hospitals would get from new funding he was supposedly announcing. “A stream of funding over four or five years,” replied Johnson, unconvincingly, after a stream of “Ers”, “Umms” and “Aaaahs”. How much? He was asked again. He clearly didn’t have a clue, tried to sweep it away with clichés and generalities, and when the reporter insisted once more on that old-fashioned thing called a fact, Johnson flapped around to pick up some briefing papers at his feet. Almost certainly reading them for the first time, he mumbled his way through a note that had lots about Yorkshire hospitals, pathology labs, children’s services, blah blah blah, but not the answer to the question. He looked in desperation to the corner of the room…
“Give me the number for Leeds somebody, give me the number for Leeds…” Hapless man in corner didn’t have it either. Johnson then promised the reporter, who had the look of a man thinking he had interviewed local councillors who were better at this than the current prime minister, that he would “have the figure for Leeds before you leave the room.”
The Granada leg of the regional schmooze should be required viewing not just for journalism students, but for the so-called stars of national TV with their big salaries, own shows and big Twitter followings, who all too often give Johnson such an easy ride, often based on them taking a line briefed to the papers overnight, which they then allow Johnson to repeat to the cameras, without the kind of rigorous, determined scrutiny showed by Granada’s Hannah Miller.
Back at the start of this pandemic, when I was trying to give the government the benefit of the doubt, and penning blogs and articles designed to be helpful, I wrote that “the most difficult questions are those which demand a factual answer that the interviewee would be expected to know.” My point was aimed not just at Johnson, or Matt “ramp-up… unprecedented… world-class… working night and day…” Hancock, but at the hotshot reporters whose questions at the daily briefings were so often failing to elicit factual information, instead allowing Johnson and Co to repeat ad nauseam whatever cliché or slogan had been churned out of the nightly taxpayer-funded focus groups.
To give you an example of a question to which you might be expected to know the answer, if you are a prime minister boasting to Yorkshire’s most watched news programme about new funding for Leeds’ hospitals – “how much will Leeds get?” That kind of thing.
Hannah Miller had a whole raft of factual questions any interviewee who believed in a modicum of research and preparation ought to have been able to answer. She started with one from “Jane from Wirral”, who wanted to know if she could meet her daughter for a dog walk. Yes, said Johnson, provided she observes social distancing.
Miller pointed out that was against the advice on the government website for Merseyside, to which Johnson said people should “show common sense and look on local websites”. Er, that is what she had done.
Mark from Oldham, said the interviewer, wanted to know why Oldham had tighter restrictions than other parts of Greater Manchester, given Matt Hancock had said the whole area was covered by the same regime.
“My best advice to Mark from Oldham is to get on the website,” said Johnson. He did not specify which website.
“Possibly the best thing I can give you is a general answer,” he added, in a rare moment of honesty, given general skating over the surface is all he has ever done.
“So you don’t know,” said Miller, moving him on in a way the hotshot London brigade would do well to study.
She asked him about infection rates in his own Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency. He didn’t know them. She pointed out they were twice as high as they had been in Manchester when the area had to go into restrictions. This looked like major news to Johnson. Back to generalities: use common sense, look at the website – I wish someone had asked him for the URL – follow guidance, follow the law.
She wanted to know how low the R-rate of infection would have to be before restrictions were lifted. Definitely a question to which the man in charge of the country’s handling of the crisis would know the answer, surely? Er no …
“That is the crucial question,” he pre-waffled.
“And what is the answer?”
He fell back on the “keep under constant review… science will eventually ride to our rescue…” clichés and generalities.
The interviewer for Scotland’s STV programme seemed genuinely surprised that Johnson did not want to push at an open door, namely the one marked “Criticism of the SNP MP who had travelled around the country while knowing she had Covid”.
“I am not familiar with the details of the case,” he said, which was either a lie, or further confirmation that he had gone into his interviews without doing any preparation, probably both.
The reporter quickly got to the point, namely that he couldn’t bring himself to say Margaret Ferrier should resign as an MP, because he had defended Dominic Cummings for a breach of Covid rules every bit as egregious. Bizarrely, for the first time, Johnson looked relaxed. He was on familiar ground. He knew the Cummings Barnard Castle lies inside out, and he had got away with telling them, so he could just tell them again.
It’s quite something that literally the only time he looked sure of his ground was when he was defending himself over the incident that had done as much damage as any other to his and the government’s credibility on Covid, which is what led to so many of those reporters having such sceptical looks on their faces.
The overall impression left on those, like me, who watched them all, was that we had witnessed a clash between people who took their responsibilities to their communities, and their jobs, seriously, and did them well, and someone, sadly the prime minister, of whom none of those things can be said.
I suspect the poor chap in the corner of the room might have got a bit of the BoJo temper at the end. I wonder if Johnson will have asked “whose stupid idea that was”, and demanded they stick to the hotshot London crowd in future. Certainly, by Sunday, facing Andrew Marr in the BBC studio, he had rediscovered his bulldozing, blustering, filibustering, smirking, waffling, lying, fact-avoiding, detail-lite ways, and seemed so much happier than he had just 48 hours earlier.