What it’s like trying to report on a prime minister’s visit

Downing Street media plans rarely include the media.

What it’s like trying to report on a prime minister’s visit Getty Images

Today, the Prime Minister was in Orkney and then headed to the north-east of Scotland.

The visit marks a fresh injection of cash for island communities and will afford Boris Johnson the opportunity to tell voters just how he might be prepared to die in a ditch for the union.

What the small number of actual voters who met the Prime Minister will make of it is anyone’s guess. On such trips, journalists don’t have time or, more importantly, the opportunity to ask the corralled of the photo opportunity what they really think.

The whole trip will consume the prime-ministerial day but you can count in minutes the amount of time the fourth estate will have to ask questions you might be interested in being answered.

In my 19 years as political editor of STV, I learned that any Downing Street media plan normally involves not meeting the media.

The modus operandi runs something like this. Trail an announcement, in this case cash for communities. Send out some waffle to trail the visit which gives news organisations the chance to ‘preview’ the visit.

Place a sexier story with a compliant newspaper who in return for exclusivity will write what is in essence propaganda.

Impress on broadcasters that time is limited and that one ‘pooled’ interview will have to be conducted, ie one journalist asks questions on behalf of the main news organisations. As these questions are frequently on different subjects and as time is limited it is unlikely that the PM will be pressed on any one issue.

Above all else, get the prime minister out before any damage can be done at the hands of some impertinent insurgent hack.

Downing Street could, of course, make time for interviews but more often than not they don’t. Why ruin a visit by allowing a politician to make a pig’s ear of an answer which then overshadows their story?

Visits by other UK cabinet ministers are run on similar lines.

Now it is always an issue for debate in news organisations how these visits should be reported. Often, the subject matter of the trip will be a mere backdrop if some other issue is dominating the editorial. The best-laid plans of Downing Street become unstuck as we simply refuse to be news managed.

The nervousness with which press officers in UK departments view a trip north cannot be overstated. You would think the minister was being sent to wear an England strip to a Bannockburn rally for the Yes campaign.

Over the years I have had a few crossed swords and crosser words with such press officers.

George Osborne’s ‘you can’t use the pound’ speech during the independence referendum was the most important speech ever made by a Chancellor in Scotland. He refused to be interviewed on it. We refused to be news managed so chased him down the street in an effort to throw something pertinent at him.

The Treasury’s media man erupted, threatening all sorts. Since he couldn’t manage what he can’t manage, his threats to withdraw cooperation were futile. For the record, there wasn’t much cooperation anyway.

Some in their stunning naivety will approach with the question, what are you going to ask the Secretary of State? The answer I always gave, I borrowed from an old news editor. “It is a need to know basis and you don’t need to know.” It does no harm to gently remind them, you are master of your world and I am master of mine.

Of course, on visits like today, you always ask for an interview. When they ask, ‘how can I help?’ (not what they really mean), you will say, we need to talk about Boris Johnson. When will he conduct a proper interview?

Eventually, they relent and will front the PM at some later date knowing that they will be subjected to a ‘PM goes to Scotland to hide’ narrative if they persist in always enforcing pool arrangements.

Even then they rarely leave control mode. “Time is tight, you have two questions.” The injunction was always ignored and I have to report by BBC journalists as well.

It brought not so much rage as a tugging at the jacket. I suppose I have been technically man and woman handled when interviewing David Cameron in Bellshill and Theresa May in Bishopton as the press officer behind me concluded, ‘this isn’t going well, I’ll yank at his jacket’.

In a world where news organisations want an editorial free-for-all and politicians want an exercise in controlled messaging there is an uncomfortable co-existence. They realise they can go only so far and we realise that we cannot completely ignore a prime-ministerial visit.

I don’t expect this cold war to change any time soon.