For much of his five years in power, backed by an unassailable approval rating and a parliamentary majority, Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair has had little difficulty deflecting criticism of his government. But after a rough few months of press coverage — amid a drop in ratings and accusations that the culture of “spin” rules his Cabinet — Blair on Thursday sought to address his critics by inaugurating a rarity in high British politics: a regular news conference.
THE SCHISM BETWEEN Downing Street and Fleet Street has been growing with every newspaper deadline of late. Largely due to negative press coverage, in recent weeks Blair has had to sack a much-loathed minister and make amends for his wife Cherie’s missteps into Mideast policy.
Britain’s Home Secretary David Blunkett, himself facing uproar over e-mail policing policy, spoke for Downing Street recently when he accused the media of being “almost on the edge of sanity.”
“We’re really going crackers,” Blunkett said.
BLAIR AND BLACK ROD Blair’s battle with the press came to a head this month, when Downing Street lodged a protest with the Press Complaints Commission, an independent media watchdog, after several newspapers reported that the prime minister’s office had tried to secure a more visible role for Blair at the April 9 funeral of the 101-year-old queen mother.
The complaint quickly backfired when a memo from the official in charge of the funeral, Sir Michael Willcocks, was leaked to the press. Willcocks, traditionally known as Black Rod, is Queen Elizabeth’s emissary to the House of Commons, Britain’s lower house of parliament.
In the so-called “killer memo,” portions of which were reprinted in British newspapers, Black Rod recalled that he and his staff had been placed under “sustained and constant pressure” by Downing Street to give Blair a more prominent role in the queen mother’s funeral.
BLAIR’S BLUNDER? During the eight-day mourning period before the royal funeral, according to the memo, Blair’s office made suggestions to Black Rod, including that the prime minister walk from Downing Street to Westminster Abbey, meet the queen mother’s coffin and enter through the main entrance in front of television cameras.
After the memo was excerpted in the press, the prime minister’s office, with little explanation, quickly dropped its complaint. Downing Street said that some changes were “discussed” with Black Rod, but insisted that there was “no evidence that either the prime minister or his officials had acted improperly.”
InsertArt(1560191)But the notion that the prime minister’s office — long accused by the media of putting image over substance — would “muscle in” for PR profit at the funeral of the country’s beloved “Queen Mum,” was a tempting story for the national press.
The appearance of spin and image as a constant theme at Downing Street has now taken a toll on Blair’s popularity among Britons. According to a Daily Telegraph poll published Thursday, more than half of those surveyed said they view Blair’s government as “not honest and trustworthy.”
FULL COURT PRESS Weeks after the incident, the scandal refuses to die. The London Times newspaper, covering a charity tennis tournament in which Blair took part this week, couldn’t pass up a play on words. “Blair tries to deal with top-spin from the right,” read its headline.
Blair himself is no stranger to the press, and the transformation of the Labor Party’s image of unelectable pro-union socialists in bad suits to re-electable coiffed populists is credited to the prime minister and his advisors. But once in power, Blair adopted a time-honored tradition of delegating press affairs to senior staffers who brief a selected group of Downing Street regulars on the affairs of state. The exclusive meetings, known as “the lobby,” are always off-the-record, and usually given by Alastair Campbell. Reporters singularly loathe Campbell as the chief architect of Downing Street “spin.”
During his press conference on Thursday, Blair fielded questions on Northern Ireland, EU ties and tides of asylum-seekers heading toward Britain.
Downing Street billed the press conference — the first in what is promised will be a regular event — was aimed to take issues straight to the public, to cut through cynicism and make British politics more transparent. “Don’t worry, there is plenty of time,” Blair joked with journalists gathered in the Downing Street dining room. The prime minister took questions for over an hour.
But questions kept returning to government spin.
Blair scoffed at the “notion that the British public out there is debating the ins and outs of Black Rod.”
“People in this country will judge a government by what it does,” Blair continued. “Substance is what will decide.”
MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is based in London.