METERMost people in the UK could probably remember the old meeting room that was requested for government press conferences on coronavirus. The walls were lined with tan wood paneling, the rug had some kind of old-fashioned floral number. There were bronze chandeliers on the walls, several sweaty-looking ministers on the podiums. Boris Johnson, however, wants us to associate such broadcasts to the masses with a different room in the future, and ordered a renovation of part of 9 Downing Street accordingly. And so on Monday, the nation got a glimpse of the government’s new press room for the first time.
For a room designed expressly to appear on camera, it is remarkably unphotogenic. Things you can expect to hear in a room that looks like this include: “Late arrivals will not be admitted to the continental breakfast served outside of Conference Room 2 between 8:30 and 9”; or “we have entered into negotiations with the alien ambassador over the territory once known as Earth.” Indeed, it will be the setting for the new daily government press conferences, broadcast live on television in the manner of the feel-good hits we all know and love, briefings on the global pandemic.
In the new setup, things will be run by New Downing Street Communications Director, former journalist Allegra Stratton, which is a huge shame because daytime TV star and on-air freak Richard Madeley was once rumored to be on the run.
It’s hard, when you hear that projects like this cost £ 2.6 million, not to feel that your grip on “money” as a concept is weakening. The cost is supposed to reflect the fact that 9 Downing Street is a Grade 1 listed building, although the government was under no obligation to install the new press room there. And some of the things that have been done to this room seem like a weird way of showing respect for such a building.
Existing wood paneling now contains embedded LED lighting, which I suppose is the kind of thing you have to do if you need to justify spending millions to renovate a room that seems like the answer to the question, “What if the White House was a Travelodge? ?? “
Aside from the wood, the room is decorated in an overwhelmingly conservative shade of blue. In photos released Tuesday, a Henry Hoover peeks out from the side of the room in what feels like a sinister attempt to bond. Wow, we forgot to leave old Henry! We are just like you, really, we always leave the vacuum outside when we shoot photos of the latest scenario set for our increasingly authoritarian state. Look at her little smile!
It must be assumed that a large part of the cost of this project was paying a consultancy to deliberate for several weeks before arriving at the recommendation: more flags. There are no fewer than four flags in the room, which seems ridiculous at first glance, but actually makes a lot of sense. The only thing that could be more patriotic than having one background flag is multiple flags. And why stop at two? Four flags show twice the respect for our United Kingdom as two. That’s just math.
Johnson used to go out to address the nation in front of a couple of measly flags, and Labor plans to include more flags in his messages were leaked earlier this year. It seems inevitable, therefore, that we are going to end up in a union jack arms race and that there will be nothing but a churning sea of flags on this stage before the year is out, with more great waves of flags pressing on the doors, and a flag at each seat solemnly waving a smaller flag.
Even setting aside the “there’s nothing to see here” vibes that comes from the fact that a Russian company Loosely linked to the Moscow state-controlled broadcasters that installed the technology and communications equipment, there is more to this room than meets the eye.
These new daily live briefings are meant to make conservatives look more hip and in touch with people, as well as more American. The new room expresses these wishes in visual language. The United States has televised its daily presidential press conferences since 1995, in a room that looks a lot like this (a blue background, though it looks like just a flag), and Johnson’s desire to emulate it partly reflects a conservative desire to distance the United Kingdom of Europe and join America instead.
And as in the United States, daily television briefings can be conducted under the guise of “transparency” when, in fact, they offer the government a more direct way to direct the news agenda. At the moment, there are two daily, off-camera, taped press briefings every day in Downing Street, where they can question the prime minister’s official spokesperson, an official. With the new live briefings, the government will be able to speak more directly to the people. It’s a way to cut out the media middlemen, even if they’re still there sitting on the conference room chairs as useful props on the government television outlet.
Rather than being open to question, this government has a history of not being transparent. There was the incident in February last year when Downing Street banned reporters from certain media outlets from attending a briefing on trade negotiations with the EU. Johnson repeatedly dodged interviews in the run-up to the 2019 election, and his press office changed its name on Twitter to the fake “factcheckUK” during a leaders’ debate. The Today program, GMB, Channel 4 News and Newsnight have been frozen at different points by government ministers.
This ugly room represents an uglier reality, then: the government’s public relations machine is trying to find a way to make conservatives appear accessible and open, while actually tightening its grip on the political narrative.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism