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Press briefings in the British manner

By David D. Newsom / October 20, 1986



London

THE resignation of Bernard Kalb as State Department spokesman and the allegations of disinformation on the part of the Reagan administration have focused attention in Britain, as well as in the United States, on the communication between the press and the government in a democracy. Viewing the events from the British perspective, an American is struck by the uniqueness of the process in Washington. In no other country do press officers of the government meet daily with local and foreign correspondents together in an open session before TV cameras.

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The British daily, the Guardian, devoted a page Oct. 10 to the role of the press secretary in democratic countries. Referring to the practice in Washington, the Guardian wrote, ``this open system appears in bold contast to the highly secretive lobby briefings in Westminster, which as far as the public is concerned, never take place.'' The Guardian writer went on to qualify this somewhat by suggesting that Larry Speakes makes liberal use of ``background'' to avoid direct attribution and to favor some reporters over others. Basic differences in the two systems remain, nevertheless.

The British Foreign Office news department briefs British and foreign reporters in separate sessions. The office of the prime minister has its own set of briefings, but the most important information is apparently reserved for a closed daily meeting with a select group of British reporters known as ``the lobby.'' Attribution to specific officials is strictly limited, and none of these briefings are televised.

Also, Britain has its Official Secrets Act, which provides for penalties against journalists and publications that disclose unauthorized information. It is supplemented by a system of ``D notices,'' which advise publications of proscribed subjects. The British Press Council operates as a channel of communication to the government.

The television medium, now so central to the American scene, operates under greater inhibitions in Britain. Two of the four channels in London carry programs of the government-chartered British Broadcasting Corporation. Although BBC tries hard to remain independent, it is under frequent pressure from the political leadership and is supported by tax revenues. The Conservative Party conference this month criticized BBC international reporting as ``biased.''

The British media, too, appear to have smaller budgets for the coverage of major events, particularly overseas. There is therefore less of a visual challenge in British television to the official position of the government on a foreign policy issue.

The parliamentary system in Britain, with its requirement that government ministers appear for question time before Parliament, means that British officials are less inclined to give press conferences. They prefer to reserve their replies for Parliament.

The practices in other democratic countries in Europe outlined in the Guardian are much closer to the British model than to the American.

The very uniqueness of the system in Washington requires that both sides follow certain unwritten rules. The government is not expected to share all of its information but, except in rare cases of military necessity, will not provide false information. The press, while not expected to reveal all of its sources, will not fabricate either information or sources.

This game of ``hide and seek,'' as the Guardian calls it, will never be perfect. Government officials will hold back more than they may need to. Reporters may be overly impressed with government information and may not ask the penetrating questions necessary to reveal the whole truth. The system works to give the public significant insights into the processes of policy so long as a degree of trust remains.

The American system of press-government communication has been seriously threatened in the past during the period of Vietnam and Watergate. The easy informality and confidence that marked the relationship at an earlier period has never been regained.

Public officials in democratic countries are frequently frustrated, if not angered, by the skeptical, intrusive pursuit by the journalist. Officials are often tempted not only to joust with the representatives of the media, but also to try to co-opt them. In the disinformation proposal in Washington, some officials seemed to be saying, ``OK, If the press wants leaks, we will give them leaks.''

Some in the public may justify the government's action. Some may even applaud. But to many, it violates in a serious way the basic rules of this unique democratic game. In the long run, the American public will lose out. And government efforts to make known genuine, significant information relating to a threat to the United States will be greeted with greater skepticism than ever before.

David D. Newsom is spending a sabbatical leave from Georgetown University at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.