14 Mar 2014

The press pool stifling hard questions

The US Secretary of State John Kerry held a “press conference” in London today. Channel 4 News were told we would not be allowed in – they had arranged for Sky and Reuters to come in as a “pool” and the answers would be circulated to all media.

Last week in Moscow it was the same story when Vladimir Putin held a “press conference”. “You cannot come,” said the president’s press officer when I got through to her to ask where and when it was happening.

And the most hilarious example of the tyranny of the press pool was in Cornwall during the floods and storms. I happened to be in Kingsand filming a few minutes before David Cameron was to arrive to do a prime ministerial sympathy visit. As I walked down the street I found myself accosted by a young woman who introduced herself as from Downing Street.

Britain's PM Cameron speaks with Hughes, Brown and dog Maggie, whose home was damaged during recent storms at Kingsand in southwest England

“Can you leave the area please?” she ventured. “The prime minister is about to arrive and there is a press pool in operation so we don’t want you getting in the shots or asking any questions.” I explained that this was a public highway and there was no law saying I couldn’t talk to the prime minister if he happened to walk past me. This caused the woman from Downing Street great alarm and she got straight on the phone to her boss.

In truth, I was just winding her up – we didn’t have time to wait around anyway as we had to edit our report and get to the live spot to anchor the news. As I drove out of town, I waved at the prime minister’s car as it squeezed past us in the narrow streets.

I am troubled by the pool concept. The media is inadvertently conspiring with politicians and their spin doctors to make them look good and allow them to evade questions. Most TV news bulletins don’t really care so long as they get their “clip”. That’s all they have time for anyway.

But the longer-form programmes like Channel 4 News always want much more and are liable to ask more questions, and that is what press officers hate. The pool should really only exist to save broadcasters from all having to send cameras to the same dull news event, or from getting in the way of rare intimate moments where a gaggle of journalists would be inappropriate.

It should not be used to stifle press conferences and who gets into them or to ask reporters to get off the street. I’d say let’s dry the pool forever and return to every man/woman for themselves.

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