Belfast Telegraph

Gold bath taps and the dull etiquette of staged news

By Paul Connolly

A common question Belfast Telegraph journalists are asked is: where do you get your news? The answers to this, as I've said before, are many and varied. Many of the best stories come from two channels - readers, and reporters' sources.

Much has been written about sources, and indeed, there is an ongoing battle for journalists to protect their sources, particularly these days from the prying and, apparently inappropriately regulated, eyes of the police.

Many of the best stories come from readers because they are the eyes and ears of the public. Of the other routes, one of the most common is the press conference, also known as a news conference. These can be desperately tedious affairs, a moving version of a press release.

But they can also be very illustrative. They are, at least, a good chance to ask live questions without the cold barrier of a press office.

It is true that a press officer will sometimes jump up and attempt to deflect or even halt a hostile line of questioning, but this looks like the subject has something to hide. Much better to have the subject, say a minister, fully briefed on "lines to take" and skilled in the art of evasion.

I'm told that many moons ago there was an unwritten press conference rule that if the subject evaded the question, a kind of reportorial sense of duty swung into action with each journalist asking the same question until the subject relented and answered.

No such chivalry now, I'm afraid. There are too many agendas: digital, print, radio, TV. The structure is straightforward. A good example is yesterday's visit by the UK and Irish premiers to the Stormont talks.

When both the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach were speaking together it is a "joint press conference". If no one speaks it is a "photocall" or "photo opportunity". If someone just read a prepared statement it is not a press conference and becomes the object of much derision.

Journalists will likely have been invited by email (some big TV stations have entire forward planning departments) and security can be rigorous with advance pick-up of passes and entry requiring photo ID.

The grand-daddy of press conferences is at the White House, or the White House in transit if the President is travelling. Now, you'd think these would be incredibly exciting affairs: the cut and thrust of political journalism at its best. Not a bit of it. I've attended a couple of them, and the American press, in this forum anyway, is quite deferential.

The questions come from organisations in the same order (for decades, Helen Thomas of news agency UPI had the first question). And the reporters actually stand up when the President enters the room. Things are less deferential this side of the pond, although London is more aggressive than here.

The long and boring bits of press conferences used to be edited out, but such are the demands for news-hungry 24-hour TV or web live-streams these days that some go out live.

(Which opens up an opportunity for mischief: yes, bored newsdesks have been known to call press officers during live televised news conferences just to see if they've switched off their phones.)

A single, incendiary question can really set things alight. It's said a DeLorean press conference in Belfast came alive after a tabloid hack asked the car mogul it was true he had gold-plated bath taps in his Co Down home. Apparently it was.

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