About Downing Street Says…

See also news about recent changes to the site.

Q. OK. I’m lost. What on earth is this website all about?

Twice daily a select coterie of political journalists (‘the lobby’) is ushered into either the premises of The Foreign Press Association or the Lobby Room in the House of Commons where they they partake in a question and answer session with a civil servant (the “Prime Minister’s Spokesman”, was “Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman”). The civil servant’s job is to answer questions on behalf of the Prime Minister, and to alert them to governmental happenings that Number 10 feels they should know about.The journalists then write their articles or broadcast their pieces, using what they have heard to give Downing Street’s line on the stories they are covering. This whole process is known as ‘thelobby briefing’.This website aims to short-circuit this game of political Chinese whispers. Every day we will publish what the Prime Minister’s Spokesman actually said in response to the lobby’s questioning, rather than what he was reported as saying.

Q. But what’s the point of publishing the Prime Minister’s daily sermon, verbatim?

Well, firstly we like hearing verbatim from our politicians. Politicians are vital (no, really), and verbatim is good, for a couple of reasons. First off, it might put a dent in ‘soundbite culture’. Secondly, it creates a transcript of record by which the attentive amongst you can hoist them by their own petard should they be caught dissembling. Perish the thought.But there’s also a twist.We allow you to publish your views on the big news stories of the day, immediately below the thoughts of the Prime Minister and his Government.We give the PM an unmediated platform. In return, you get to have your say.

Q. So you mean you let me write whatever I want on your website? Oooh….

Nah. We quite profoundly reserve the right to play god and delete any abusive or legally-problematic posts (nasty stuff, English libel law). All relevant comments are welcomed. Personal abuse is strongly discouraged. If you see something which you think is dodgy, or offends you, please let us know byclicking on the “Report abusive comment” link under the comment and we’ll take a peek. The editors’ decision is final, you don’t get your deposit back and it’s so over when the Fat Lady has sung.

Q. Who are you lot?

We would love to tell you that we’re a terrifyingly well-organised e-democracy strike force, with decades of experience in the shark-infested waters of politics. But we’d be lying.In reality, we’re a small group of like-minded volunteers who think that prodding the system will help the system to change. We include James Cronin, Francis Irving, Martin Keegan, Chris Lightfoot, Tomski, Tom Steinberg and others.We belong to no lobbying groups, no political parties and will happily declare any of our interests if asked. Tom Steinberg spent a few months scribbling away in the heart of government, though we’re pretty confident he didn’t go native.

Q. You’re doing this in your spare time?!? Are you mad?

No. Not all of us. We believe that these regular question and answer sessions could provide a unique and vital window into the mindset of those who exert power in our name. Sadly, that window is currently obscured – on both sides – by layer upon layer of spin.

Q. Oooh! Spin! Horrid, despicable, Government Spin!

It’s not just Government spin, remember. The journalists who attend the daily briefings also add spin to the stories they write and the reports they broadcast – sometimes carelessly, sometimes brazenly, sometimes malevolently. Spin on one side leads to more spin on the other, ad nauseam. And that’s bad.This website is a rather quirky attempt to break that cycle, for the benefit of our rather quirky democracy.

Q What, you mean you seriously think that the PM’s briefing can be anything other than a propaganda fest?

Yes. One reason is that the briefings are hosted by civil servants, and even now civil servants tend to get into trouble if they’re caught lying, or being overtly party political. At first glance this could come across as ridiculously naive (you’ve all seen Yes Minister, right?). But hold your horses. Who better to highlight any lies or party political bias than a whole host of citizens (you lot), each armed with a modern-day Gutenberg? If they lie, there’s very little doubt that someone amongst you will spot it, write it up and then hit the ‘post’ button.There is another reason. We believe that a healthy democracy can, should and must sustain an honest, open dialogue between rulers and ruled. Currently such a dialogue is impossible, since we very rarely hear from the PM, other than via carefully-prepared soundbites or biased reporting.

Q. Why the faceless and slightly sinister “Prime Minister’sSpokesman”? Why can’t I know their names?

The Prime Minister’s Spokesman (aka ‘PMS’, was ‘PMOS’) is a civil servant. Currently he is Michael Ellam. Previous spokesmen have included Tom Kelly.Number 10 is keen to make it clear that their identity is not important – so you will see “The PMS said” written on many occasions without referring to the fact that it is a different person speaking to the day before.

Q. What role does the PMS play, precisely?

In the words of Godric Smith, the PMS’ roles, “can be summarised as follows: firstly, to provide media advice to the Prime Minister as appropriate; to liaise with other Government departments on the coordination and presentation of Government policy; and probably most importantly to brief the press during Parliament in formal briefings at 11 o’clock and 3.45.”A rare and detailed description of their day to day work was given during the Hutton Inquiry.

Q. What exactly is it you are publishing?

The briefings are an accurate, but not word-for-word, account of what the PMS talks about with a group of journalists. They discuss issues which Number 10 thinks that the public should know about and give answers to questions from journalists.The Prime Minister also gives occasional press conferences, in which he answers questions put to him by journalists. We publish the word-for-word transcripts of these, including any statement made by the PM.

Q. Who transcribes the briefings? How do I know that the copies here are accurate?

The original briefings are transcribed by civil servants who attend them. We have written a computer program to copy them (under licence) from Downing Street’s web server, and install them on ours. We’ve done our best to make sure that this process is accurate and reliable, but obviously we can’t guarantee that absolutely. The authoritative copy is the one on the Downing Street site. If you come across anything that looks like a major discrepancy (or even a minor one), please get in touch with us at webmaster@downingstreetsays.org.

Q. How long does it take before the briefings are posted here?

The briefings only appear on this site once they’ve been published on the Downing Street web pages. We can’t control when that happens, but so far the transcripts of the 11am briefings seem to appear in the early afternoon, and the 3:45pm briefings late the same day or the following morning. We realise that this isn’t ideal, and are hoping to improve on it one way or another. Stay tuned for updates.The “last updated” link on the front page refers to the scheduled time of the most recent briefing, regardless of when it appeared on our site.

Q. Remind me again, what’s in it for me?

We let you:

  1. Read and search through what the Prime Minister’s Spokesman actually said at each lobby briefing, in context.
  2. Leave your own comments on what was said, and to read other people’s.
  3. Find out what people across the web are saying about government policy, via those funny trackback links which appear at the bottom of every answer.

Q. Is Downing Street reading what we say?

Maybe. That’s up to them. The only way to guarantee that they do is to make this website a vibrant, thought-provoking resource. The better it is for users and citizens, the more chance that they’ll be paying attention.

Q. Are you affiliated with Downing Street?

You must be kidding. We are using the information from the PMS under licencing terms which are available to anyone. Email us if you want to know how you can get the data. Of course, we hope that they’ll view what we’re doing constructively.

Q. Are you affiliated with mySociety.org?

Yep. This isn’t a full mySociety project, though – those involve developer contracts and actual money, more details are on the mysociety website. This was site was more like our declaration of intent.

Q. So what’s your angle – you must be hoping to make money on this?

Nope. Running a website, contrary to what most highly-paid Net consultants will tell you, can come in very, very cheap. If you can get enough people to volunteer their time and expertise, you can create even quite complex internet projects in double quick time for almost no money. A large proportion of the Internet consists of volunteer projects like ours.

Q. Do these briefings happen all year round?

These lobby briefings only happen when Parliament is ‘in session’.

Q. Can I link to this site?

Yes, of course. Please do. No need to ask.If you want to link to a particular paragraph in a long briefing or a transcript of one of the Prime Minister’s press conferences, you’ll find HTML anchors at the beginning of each paragraph of briefings (at least, for those published after 2nd April 2004; we’ll apply this to archived material later).

Q. What do I do if I think something went wrong, or if I see an error on the site?

Then we really want to hear from you.Whilst we offer this service for free, we still want it to work. Don’t hesitate to mail us on webmaster@downingstreetsays.com to let us know if anything strange happens (while you use the site, not in life generally), you see any error messages or simply if you want to get in touch with us for any reason.

Downing Street Says...

The unofficial site which lets you comment on the UK Prime Minister's official briefings. About us...


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