Thursday, February 23, 2006


The PMs monthly press conference is one of those rare ocassions when King Tony very generously grants journalists the right to ask him direct questions about the issues of the day. In some ways, it's the nearest thing we've got to executive accountability.

Journalists, in practice, cannot push the Prime Minister too far; if a journalist asks too many difficult questions, there will be consequences. Number 10 might remind the relevant editor that ministers are very busy and that decisions have to made regarding media appearances. In other words, make sure your guys play friendly or we'll give all the exclusive interviews to those who do. This is obviously why the Blair cabal appears so frequently in the Scum (and increasingly on Sky News it seems to me) and why serious TV News journalists (Channel 4 News and Newsnight being the obvious examples) so often have to say that "no minister was available for comment".

In extreme cases, the journalist can be "blacklisted" by the Downing Street spin machine and they will then be unable to gain access to any government minister. This can end a promising career in political journalism.

These unwritten rules existed before Blair, but Blair, along with Alastair Campbell, have taken them to a whole new level. If you're really concerned about the dangers posed to a free society by media self-consorship, this is where you should start.

The good news is that Blair's control system is not perfect and there are still a few journalists prepared to stick their necks out in pursuit of the truth. As such, the monthly press conference is worth paying attention to.

The transcript for today's showdown isn't available yet but I managed to catch a part of it at lunchtime on BBC News 24. Jon Snow, I think, asked a good question on Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary rendition. Blair weaselled (more on that later). Someone else asked about his education reforms. Proper questions, they were.

And then Blair called someone from Sky News. And he wanted to know what the PM thought about calls for metrification of road signs in the UK? That's what he asked. It's an interesting question, I'll grant you, but it's hardly one of the pressing issues of the day. In fact, it reminded me very much of the loyal careerist Labour backbencher at PMQs. A little light relief to give the PM a break from having to avoid answering any difficult questions which might come his way.

Except, it all went horribly wrong. The Sky toady, in his jovial effort to get the PM off the hook lighten the mood, asked the PM if he knew how many kilometres there were in 50 miles. Cue the tumbleweed.

Blair, astonishingly, didn't know. The Prime Minister. Didn't know.

Anyone who's travelled in Europe will know that 5m = 8km. Anyone who's got an eleven year old's grasp of arithmetic will know that 10 x 5 = 50 and that 10 x 8 = 80.

But the most power centralising, "we know best" PM in living memory? The most arrogant, most patronising, most dangerously self-assured man in British politics? He doesn't know how many kilometres there are in 50 miles.

Am I alone in finding this a very worrying state of affairs?

The transcript is up. Here's the Q&A, just in case you think I made this up.
Sky News lickspittle: Prime Minister, what is your view on the campaign, backed by Neil Kinnock, to get rid of miles and replace them with kilometres in this country. And if I may test you, do you know how many kilometres there are in 50 miles?

Prime Minister: I suppose they told you that before you came in here. It was never my strong point anyway, that type of thing, and I think Alistair Darling has already given the answer to that, which is no, that we are not in favour of that. OK, what is the answer, come on?
It's 80km, you git. How could you possibly not know that?

Blair's desperate pauses, and the slightly embarrased, slightly incredulous laughter of the Press corp have, alas, not made the transcript.

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