How to survive a prime ministerial broadcast round

Every big foreign trip includes back-to-back grillings — while an army of pool reporters tries not to miss a beat.

How to survive a prime ministerial broadcast round

NEW YORK — “It’s beautiful!” chirped Boris Johnson as he emerged onto the 42nd-floor balcony at the U.K. consul-general’s residence overlooking the Hudson River.

It was 7.30 a.m. in New York and the U.K. prime minister was gearing up for a morning grilling from broadcast journalists — going toe-to-toe with six of the biggest names in the business one after the other.

“Hello! Good morning, how are you doing?” the PM asked BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, who was first in the queue, as Downing Street aides looked on and broadcast engineers scurried about.

The full media round is a must for a prime minister on a high-profile foreign visit. Johnson was in the U.S. for the United Nations General Assembly and a crunch meeting with President Joe Biden in Washington.

The interviews were not being beamed onto TV screens live, but were designed for broadcasters to get clips of their journalists holding the prime minister to account on their news bulletins. Often the full exchanges end up posted on the internet too.

“I’m not sure the interview round serves No. 10 particularly well,” said Craig Oliver, former director of communications to ex-PM David Cameron. “It’s about being abroad but needing to be accountable.”

In New York, each interviewer had a tight five minutes with the prime minister, hoping to elicit something good for their news packages. Three cameras were set up, wires trailing all over the floor, green crosses taped down to show Johnson where to stand.

Someone asked the prime minister to speak for a soundcheck. “Boris Johnson speaking at roughly this level,” he quipped over the surrounding gaggle of press and aides, the low hum of the city far below in the background.

Suddenly, a cameraman clapped to signal the start of recording and Kuenssberg launched into her first question.

“You get a rushed five minutes each with the prime minister, like a really frenetic conveyor belt,” she told POLITICO just moments before Johnson arrived. “It’s surreal because you’re looking over something like the Hudson River, wondering what someone sitting on the sofa watching the six o’clock news tonight is going to want to ask.”

The other broadcasters like to listen to their rivals’ interviews, worried someone will get a better line from the prime minister than them. There can be tussles too about who goes first and last, with benefits to both. The first interview will often be the most comprehensively covered, with agency reporters sending quotes to other journalists before the interviews even air, but the later ones, when the PM starts to get tired of repeating the same lines, have a tendency to elicit less expected news.

The Downing Street team, including the director of communications, the press secretary and the prime minister’s official spokesman, listen with worried expressions, to make sure their boss doesn’t end up off track. The press team prepares the prime minister ahead of the interview, briefing him on the latest government positions and hammering out the key messages he needs to keep coming back to, no matter what the question.

“You become quite adept at working out what is on the news agenda and what the journalists are going to go for,” said Oliver. “You try to work out where they are going to probe your defenses and how to pivot to the things you want to talk about.”

If the prime minister goes off course, gets a fact wrong or doesn’t quite nail the best wording, his team might whisper in his ear in the few seconds between the interviews to point that out.

Jump in the pool

In what felt like seconds not minutes, Kuenssberg was done, and the next interviewer stepped up to the plate.

One of the pool reporters rushed off to type up the quotes from the BBC grilling. The pool reporters work for news agencies, farming quotes and stories out to other journalists, making the job of newspapers and online desks smoother.

On a foreign trip, the pool has at least double the workload of the other journalists. They go to every bilateral meeting the prime minister holds to file quotes and stories the other hacks can use, listening in to every interview to do the same, and even going to photo moments the PM won’t speak at to report back a description that can be used in stories or as picture captions.

“It’s flat out from morning until you go to bed,” said Sam Blewett, a pool reporter for the Press Association. “Because not only do you have to get all the best stories filed quickly like everyone else, but you’re also running around multiple different bilateral meetings between world leaders, sometimes back to back, covering all the broadcast interviews as well.”

And it’s not just the workload making the pool reporters feel the pressure. They have to spot the right news lines every time and get the quotes out to other journalists as fast as possible. “It’s a bit daunting because it’s a lot to get out and you know everyone is relying on you and is eager to hear back from you as quick as you can do it,” said Blewett.

But the pressure comes with VIP benefits. “You know you’re the first,” he said. “You’re watching things happen right in front of you — you’re seeing it all first hand.”

On the balcony in New York, another pool reporter scurried off after the Kuenssberg interview to write up the quotes and file snap stories, while Blewett watched the other five grillings, looking out for new turns of phrase and additions from the PM that might make better headlines, or new topics Kuenssberg didn’t ask about.

“Is that it?” Johnson asked after the third interview. He hid his dismay at discovering there was more to come. Much more. He asked aides about the next event on the list: “Are we late for this breakfast?”

The schedule for a big prime ministerial trip is planned down to the minute. If things go long by even a short period it can throw the entire agenda out of whack unless time is made up elsewhere. The pressure bubbled up when one of the journalists attempted to stretch over their five-minute slot with one last question. “Time! Time! Time!” one press aide cried out, forcing the interviewer to give up.

“What you cannot do is walk in front of the camera and give them a story about the media minder interfering with the journalistic process,” said Oliver. “You have to be quite stern with them and say ‘we’ve agreed to do this, we’re giving you a limited amount of time, don’t overstep the mark.’”

A helicopter hovered overhead in the crisp morning breeze, the juddering of the rotor blades bouncing between the skyscrapers. The questions kept coming and Johnson kept battling them, switching to his favored topics where possible.

After answering a fifth journalist, the PM tried to walk off, assuming the ordeal was over. “Is that done?” he asked. “One more?! GB News?! Fantastic!” The Johnsonian optimism was in full flow. He wasn’t rattled, suggesting his aides were doing their jobs well.

“You want the person to be in as relaxed a frame of mind as possible before facing people who want to trip you up,” Oliver noted. That can mean lots of preparation, making sure the PM is fed, watered and not exposed to stress.

Eventually it was over. The entire press pack was ushered out by aides and building officials, the pool journalists still furiously typing the last quotes and stories on their phones while being pushed out the door.

How did Johnson find the grilling? “Good, good, good!” he beamed.

Source : Politico EU More   

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Blocking Troubles-era cases means ‘impunity’ for killers, Council of Europe warns UK

Human rights chief deems proposed 'amnesty' on Northern Ireland conflict cases a blueprint for sustaining injustice.

Blocking Troubles-era cases means ‘impunity’ for killers, Council of Europe warns UK

British government plans to forbid further prosecutions and lawsuits linked to the Northern Ireland conflict would flout the European Convention on Human Rights and trigger years of litigation, the Council of Europe warned Thursday.

“The blanket, unconditional nature of the amnesty in your proposal effectively means that none of those involved in any serious violations will be held to account, leading to impunity,” the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatović, said in a diplomatic but damning letter to Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis.

Mijatović sent her letter on September 13. It and Lewis’ reply were made public Thursday.

Lewis conceded that Britain’s plans — universally rejected by Northern Irish parties and victims groups when unveiled in July — were published “not to represent a final position but rather to inform a process of engagement.”

But he defended the Conservative government’s determination to stop all legal actions connected to more than 1,700 unresolved killings from three decades of bloodshed preceding Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace accord of 1998.

Lewis said the British government wanted to replace its previous promises on delivering justice for victims with a new “information recovery body.” It would encourage former paramilitary and security force members to tell the truth about their role in shootings and bombings without fear of being imprisoned or sued.

But Mijatović said that idea relied on “oversimplifications” and “problematic assumptions.” She said Lewis was promoting “a false dichotomy between investigations and prosecutions on the one hand, and truth and reconciliation on the other.”

While Lewis has argued that shadowy former combatants would be more likely to tell the truth if the risk of arrest or financial sanction was removed, Mijatović sharply disagreed.

“The reverse may well be true,” she wrote. “Giving perpetrators unconditional guarantees against criminal prosecution may weaken incentives to participate in truth seeking. The impunity this creates may undermine the trust necessary for truth and reconciliation efforts to be effective.”

While Brexit means the U.K. no longer observes the EU’s European Charter of Fundamental Rights, it remains a founding member of the Council of Europe and is supposed to respect its core treaty, the European Convention on Human Rights.

Yet Mijatović noted that the U.K. had failed to enact key recommendations from more than two decades of European Court of Human Rights judgments on Northern Ireland matters. Lewis’ new proposals, she said, would deepen this disconnection and leave survivors and their families “without any realistic prospect of justice.”

She dismissed Lewis’ claim that the new plan would speed truth-finding for victims, arguing that the British government itself was most responsible for existing delays and legal obstruction.

The amnesty plan’s incompatibility with human rights law, Mijatović said, “would no doubt lead to many drawn-out legal challenges … which would only mean further delays in dealing with the past effectively.”

Her letter follows similar criticisms from United Nations human rights rapporteurs and a cross-party group of 36 U.S. House of Representatives lawmakers.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly said he doesn’t want long-retired soldiers, most of them now in their 60s or 70s, prosecuted for their role in decades-old killings.

Two prosecutions seeking to convict ex-soldiers of murder have collapsed this year in Belfast. But lawyers are preparing more such cases, spurred in part by a mammoth judgment that 10 Irish Catholic civilians fatally shot by British soldiers in August 1971 were unarmed, not Irish Republican Army gunmen as the soldiers had claimed.

Source : Politico EU More   

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