Press briefings in the British manner
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.
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.