Amid the devastation of the coronavirus crisis and a looming economic catastrophe, Boris Johnson and his communication advisers remain wedded to media routines ill-suited to a national emergency.
Deeply entrenched in the Downing Street psyche is an addiction to manipulating the news agenda, a determination come what may to trail announcements in advance and grab the news agenda.
Instead of the well-timed release of clear-cut advice and information, the British public have been left ill-informed and confused by newspaper coverage heavily influenced by Conservative-supporting commentators, columnists and letter writers pushing the business case for the fastest possible easing of lockdown safeguards.
Johnson is as much to blame as his media team because he cannot resist drip feeding news lines that he knows will delight the Tory tabloids but which all too often tend to disrupt effective management of public messaging.
At Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s question time he revealed that in a televised broadcast the following Sunday he would announce a roadmap for exiting lockdown and that the government intended to “get going with some of these measures on Monday”.
After seven weeks of lockdown his bald statement cried out for amplification and his media team – who operate collectively under the catch-all guise of “Downing Street/government sources” – couldn’t resist giving journalists every encouragement to nudge the story along at breakneck speed.
One vital “fact” was confirmed in this anonymous Downing Street briefing: the government would be abandoning the “Stay Home” slogan on which it had spent millions of pounds promoting through press and television advertising.
In the Fleet Street terminology of yesteryear, by changing the slogan to ‘Stay Alert’, the Downing Street spin doctors had given the story ample “legs” to run with.
‘Hurrah! Lockdown Freedom Beckons’ was the bold claim of the Daily Mail (7.5.2020) only to be bettered by the Sun’s “Happy Monday” front page.
The new freedoms that were being trailed on the back of the Prime Minister’s initial steer – unlimited exercise and picnics in the park – were subsequently confirmed.
But for health authorities and police forces – and especially for the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – anonymously-sourced press reports that the “Stay Home” message was being abandoned caused consternation ahead of a bank holiday weekend and forecasts of fine weather.
In pre-empting Monday’s House of Commons statement with his Sunday televised address, Johnson went for the mass audience – attracting over 27 million viewers – but again there was mixed messaging.
He suggested workers could start returning on Monday morning, even before Parliament had been informed or any safety advice had been published.
A combination of confusion and anger among employers, trade unions and transport undertaking was par for the course for the media team’s mantra of driving the news agenda whatever the cost.
Johnson and his aides were relaxed, safe in the knowledge that the bulk of the Conservative Party was on his side and that The Guardian’s headline – ‘PM’s lockdown release leaves Britain confused and divided’ (11.5.2020) – would be swamped by the uplifting coverage of Johnson’s tabloid cheerleaders.
‘We are going to meet again’ (Daily Mail, 12.5.2020) and ‘Gran day out’ (Sun) were the ‘good news’ front pages that mattered most of all to the Downing Street spin machine.