Boris Johnson’s decision to launch a regular “people’s prime minister’s questions” slot on Facebook shows how political parties are increasingly able to bypass the scrutiny of journalists – while remaining confident that traditional media outlets will, in any eventuality, still report on sanitised official broadcasts.
The attraction of this approach for Downing Street is clear. Why bother holding a regular prime ministerial press conference for Westminster journalists who will ask about tricky subjects if you can select the questions yourselves?
Why bother trying to influence traditional media outlets by submitting the prime minister to a tough one-on-one interview that could backfire – as Johnson himself found out during an excruciating encounter with Eddie Mair in 2013 – when you can cut out the middleman and reach the audience directly?
And why bother inviting cameras from the BBC or ITV to Downing Street when No 10 officials can frame the camera shot themselves? This way they can portray Johnson exactly as they wish.
Wednesday’s initial people’s prime minister’s questions saw Johnson promising to answer “unpasteurised and unmediated” questions, in a visual style instantly recognisable to people used to watching YouTubers rather than a traditional political interview.
Just like an online influencer promoting their personal brand, there was a relentless positivity in Johnson’s responses and no comeback from the people asking the questions. There was certainly no detailed scrutiny of Johnson’s funding figures or ambitious claims.
The strategy is being shaped by Chloe Westley, Downing Street’s new digital adviser, a 20-something former Vote Leave campaigner who until recently was at the Taxpayers’ Alliance.
Westley – who once praised far-right anti-Islam activist Anne Marie Waters – has close links to Turning Point UK, the British arm of a pro-Donald Trump youth organisation. She is part of an influx of new young Downing Street advisers who are used to fighting their corner on Twitter and know how to create a social media storm by highlighting divisive cultural issues in order to “own the libs”.
Two months ago she recorded a spoof video for Turning Point UK entitled “Shit Champagne Socialists Say”, in which the lefties portrayed came out with lines such as “Is there wheat in this?”, “Honestly this new Spotify playlist is amazing”, and “Have you finished with your copy of the Guardian?” It provoked a largely negative reaction on Twitter, which after all may have been the intention in a media ecosystem where attention at any cost is considered a success.
The live audience for the prime minister’s initial people’s questions broadcast was tiny – fewer than 50,000 views in the first half hour – but in an election, boosted by relatively cheap Facebook advertising, such a broadcast could easily reach millions.
More crucially, there is a confidence within Downing Street that broadcasters and news outlets – starved of their own access to politicians – will end up using the footage and quotes regardless. If No 10 wants to provoke an argument, it can do so. If it wants to avoid scrutiny, it can equally do so. And it can accuse opposition to such an online-first approach as coming from a jealous anti-Brexit media who wouldn’t give Johnson a fair crack of the whip in any case.
Other political campaigners are pushing in-house news creation even further. The lobbying company run by Johnson’s close ally Sir Lynton Crosby has gone as far as to simply create their own purported “news outlets” on Facebook to spread paid-for propaganda on behalf of clients.
This strategy won’t work for everyone; it mainly benefits frontrunners who have more to lose from extra scrutiny. But unless the entire media industry refuses to run quotes from this sanitised version of a press conference, Downing Street and other political parties are likely to increasingly pursue this route.