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Journalists Boycotted A Boris Johnson Briefing. Can They Keep Up A United Front?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Britain now, where political journalists this week boycotted a briefing with Prime Minister Boris Johnson. A few reporters were told they were banned, and then the rest of the assembled press corps walked out in solidarity. Tensions between Downing Street and the media were already running high. The prime minister has faced criticism for trying to control coverage.

I asked Rasmus Nielsen, a professor of political communication at Oxford, to put this into context, starting with why certain reporters, certain news organizations had been singled out by Downing Street.

RASMUS NIELSEN: It's a mixed list, I would say. I mean, several of the organizations that were on the list have a left-leaning audience and editorial line. The Daily Mirror in particular have had several run-ins with the Conservative Party and with the prime minister, also, during the election campaign itself. But there are also several sort of centrist outlets like The Independent, for example, who have no particular run-ins.

KELLY: The principle here for journalists - being that in a democracy with a free press, the government should not be allowed to pick and choose who reports on the government. But will this solidarity last, do you think, even if it means losing access?

NIELSEN: It's going to be hard in the long run. Reality will assert itself. Editors will want copy. Reporters will want stories. And there is only one No. 10, but there are many outlets.

KELLY: Here in Washington, the president has a tradition of holding, on the day that the president delivers the State of the Union address, an off-the-record lunch with major TV news anchors. And that happened, as usual, yesterday, but CNN was excluded. Other news anchors went along. They did not boycott. What do you think explains a situation here in Washington playing out quite differently from what you have watched unfolding in London this week?

NIELSEN: Probably erosion over time. Trump has been pretty good for the media in terms of driving attention or audience ratings. It's hard to imagine that major outlets would want to contemplate a situation where they don't have the access that they require to do their journalism. In that sense, we're still in a good position in the U.K. And I think it's quite encouraging to see that both outlets that are critical of the government, like the left-leaning Guardian, but also outlets that are quite supportive of the government, like the conservative-leaning Daily Telegraph, have joined the boycott here and decided that they put their joint interest in the free press having access to government sources ahead of any ideological differences and political sympathies.

KELLY: And again, it sounds as though you are questioning whether three years from now, three years into a - Prime Minister Boris Johnson - whether the press might react somewhat differently.

NIELSEN: I think it's really worth remembering the political context here is that this is the honeymoon period for a prime minister who's just won an election victory who has his party united behind him. If any of those two things changes - if the prime minister suddenly faces a more effective political opposition or, for that matter, faces the kind of internal party rivalries that have been the undoing of so many recent conservative prime ministers - then all of a sudden, political journalists and editors will have their abundant choice of sources. And the ability of No. 10 to control the narrative will be much reduced, and No. 10 will have a resurgent interest in being in good standing and on a good foot with major outlets.

KELLY: Where is the British public on this? Are they supportive of the press or the prime minister or some combination?

NIELSEN: The majority of the British public have a dim view of politicians - almost as dim view of journalists in the news media. And I think if they heard about an incident like this, it would just confirm their suspicions that both politicians and journalists are carrying on with things that are of little concern to people in their day-to-day lives.

KELLY: Rasmus Nielsen from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford.

Professor Nielsen, thanks for your time.

NIELSEN: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.