When home secretary Priti Patel went to Dover last month to review efforts to curb the flow of migrants crossing the English channel in boats, she did not engage with the mainstream media.
The visit was filmed by the Home Office’s digital team and a carefully crafted clip of Ms Patel speaking directly to camera was shared by the department on social media.
This served as a reminder of the government’s willingness to bypass the mainstream media as part of a combative communications strategy that periodically involves breaking with convention.
“You now have the ability to put your message out there unmediated by the press, to say what you want to say and frame it as you want to send directly to your supporters and people you want to persuade,” said Craig Oliver, who served as former prime minister David Cameron’s head of communications.
The Home Office declined to comment on Ms Patel’s Dover visit, but one government official said it had been a private trip.
An official said: “Ministers appear regularly on a wide range of broadcast, print and social media channels and we are absolutely committed to keeping the public informed and engaging with them on the issues that matter.”
Another official highlighted how it was not the first time the government had sought to play things differently with the mainstream media.
Rather than ask broadcasters to record it, the prime minister’s Brexit address to the nation on January 31 was filmed by the government’s digital team, and the footage then distributed to major news outlets. But Downing Street was furious after the BBC and ITV failed to run footage in their late evening bulletins.
Although Boris Johnson is a former journalist, his communications team — led by his long-serving aide Lee Cain — does not trust much of the media.
Tensions reached new levels during the coronavirus lockdown, when Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, flouted lockdown rules and faced media pressure to resign.
“When Dom was being hounded, they dug in and decided he had to stay,” said one Conservative party official, referring to Mr Johnson’s inner circle. “They wanted to make it clear they run the country, not the media.”
Moreover, Mr Johnson’s communications team has not been afraid to pick fights with parts of the media.
In response to the BBC not running a clip of the prime minister’s Brexit day address, ministers were told not to go on Radio 4’s Today, the flagship current affairs programme. Ministers eventually returned to the show during the pandemic.
In February, Mr Johnson’s communications team clashed with a group of senior political journalists who boycotted a briefing with officials after attempts to exclude some other members of the media.
Officials are now rolling out plans to shake up relations with the mainstream media, as they seek greater control over the government’s message.
From October, Downing Street is planning to hold US-style televised briefings with political journalists on weekday afternoons, in a move seen by some as benefiting broadcasters at the expense of newspapers.
“By doing these new briefings in the afternoon they shift the centre of gravity towards the six and 10 o’clock news and away from traditional print journalism, which I think they often feel they are in the most conflict with,” said Sir Craig.
And Downing Street officials are seeking to maximise influence over the government’s message by centralising control over Whitehall departments’ press teams through the Cabinet Office.
One broadcasting executive said the dynamics between the government and the media tended to change during “extreme times”, for example during a general election or a crisis such as the pandemic.
“It is clear the government is experimenting with how to reach the public,” added the executive, referring partly to Ms Patel’s Dover visit. “That’s not new, but there have been more experiments of late.”
A director at one of the UK’s public service broadcasters said governments had always “craved compliance [by the media] — always have, always will”.
Douglas McCabe, analyst with media research group Enders Analysis, said governments across the world were increasingly trying to communicate their own messages directly to the public rather than have them relayed by the media.
“I don’t think governments feel they don’t need the media, but they see it as one among many options, while there was a time when [broadcasters and newspapers] were the only option,” he added.
Get alerts on UK politics & policy when a new story is published