Boris Johnson’s Carefully Crafted Political Stunt

The British prime minister’s “unpasteurized, unmediated” Facebook Q&A was anything but.

LONDON—When Boris Johnson was running to be leader of the Conservative Party, he only had to woo a small subset of the British electorate. As prime minister, though, Johnson has more than just Conservative members to think about. As Britain gears up to leave the European Union—and, possibly, a general election—Johnson must bring a divided country together. To do that, he decided to go directly to the people.

“I’m speaking to you live from my desk in Downing Street,” Johnson told an audience of more than 100,000 viewers today on Facebook Live. Billed as the first ever “People’s PMQs,” in reference to the Prime Minister’s Questions held in the House of Commons each week, the live-stream was presented as an opportunity for Johnson to engage directly with the British people. Viewers were encouraged to submit their questions, which he would take “unpasteurized, unmediated, from you via this machine,” Johnson said, gesturing toward the iPad on his desk.

But behind this veneer of transparency was a carefully crafted political stunt—one that is hardly new. Across the Atlantic, President Donald Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama, both bypassed traditional media in reaching supporters directly. Ditto for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and others.

Unlike normal PMQs, which are often about both the government and the opposition testing messages and their best bons mots, or any traditional media interview, Johnson’s live-streamed Q&A featured only eight preselected questions, covering everything from his already well-established Brexit position (“We need our European friends to compromise”) to his favorite politico hero (Pericles of Athens). The questions selected gave Johnson the opportunity to offer the sort of responses one might expect from a press release rather than a press conference. In all, the 13-minute exchange offered no scrutiny, no debate, and, crucially, no follow-up. Far from taking part in Prime Minister’s Questions, one BBC journalist argued, Johnson had merely posed his own.

The strategy isn’t novel. U.S. President Trump has used Twitter to promote his message directly to supporters—and, often, his opponents—in erratic, headline-grabbing bursts. With the real-time benefits of social media and the seemingly guaranteed news coverage, world leaders no longer need the press to reach their intended audience. Under the Trump administration, the once regular White House press briefing has been functionally obliterated.

Other leaders used social media to bypass the traditional news outlets in similar ways. During the Obama years, the White House was criticized for restricting the number of photographers permitted to attend certain events, opting to distribute its own photos, captured by the White House photographer Pete Souza, instead. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has created his desired public image through a series of carefully crafted photo ops.

“To have Facebook Q&As, Reddit AMAs [Ask Me Anything] ... with senior politicians is pretty common,” Tom Hamilton, a former Labour Party adviser, told me, noting that the former Labour leader Ed Miliband even considered starting his own version of a public PMQs during Britain’s 2015 general election.

Still, what is presented as unmitigated access to politicians shouldn’t be taken for anything but an unsanitized political broadcast. While Johnson was free to answer questions from people across the country about his plans to deliver Brexit and restore faith in politics, he was equally free to ignore the more critical ones. He was also free to avoid the scrutiny that lawmakers or journalists would typically provide. When asked about how he plans to deliver Brexit, Johnson faulted the European Union for its unwillingness to compromise (in reality, Britain hasn’t shifted its position either). When asked about the prospects of holding a general election after October 31, the country’s next Brexit deadline, he merely dodged.

“The big difference with PMQs, or with any interview with a professional journalist, is that you get to select the questions yourself,” Hamilton said. “It’s nothing like as hard as PMQs, as a discipline. But it’s quite a nice PR stunt.”

And, ultimately, it’s one that appears to work. Though lawmakers and the press were denied the opportunity to ask Johnson questions directly, several media outlets have covered Johnson’s stand-alone remarks all the same. “A lot more people will find out about this through the various bits of coverage, including yours in fact, than will see it directly,” Hamilton said.