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Inside the White House briefing room

Having one's questions answered rests on a system of preference for local media but, perhaps it is time for a change
Last modified: 6 Dec 2012 05:25
Each seat in the briefing room is pre-assigned by the White House Correspondents Association [EPA]

I visited Washington for 20 years before I finally made the city my home. I’ve now lived here for 15 months.

Every day I go to the office, I get off at the metro station just around the corner from the White House. When I pass the building it makes me smile in the way driving past Big Ben in London always gave me some unexplained pleasure.

I like the building. I think it’s elegant and appropriate.

And I’d never been inside - until this week.

Chasing down a story, I needed to go to the daily briefing held in the press room.

My details were sent through including my passport number and home address. Sometimes, as has happened in the past, permission to enter is refused.

The oft quoted excuse is that there is no-one there to escort me from the main gate to the press room. It’s a walk of just over a hundred metres. It is, perhaps, the most heavily guarded building in the world. But someone needs to walk with me along a path to the door.

This time, however I was in luck. Approval was forthcoming and as I pushed through the gate, images of Frank Capra movies or even the TV show The West Wing were replaying in my head. I was pathetically pleased but trying hard not to show it.

The White House briefing room is small. Very small. It used to be the White House swimming pool, but when Richard Nixon saw the rise in the number of media that wanted to cover the White House, it was converted.

It has seven rows of seats and seven seats in each row. Each seat is pre-assigned by the White House Correspondents Association, and sitting in a seat that isn’t yours is a no-no. Not every news organisation gets a seat.

The last time there was a reorganisation was in 2010. The further back you are, the less power you have. I stood at the back.

The front row is dominated by the big US media names, ABC, NBC, CBS and AP among them. And after the press secretary, currently Jay Carney, delivers his opening remarks, he opens up for questions. The AP (Associated Press) always gets the first question.

I was there to ask something on Syria and specifically the intelligence that the US allegedly had suggesting the Assad regime was moving chemical weapons. I wanted to ask about the basis of the intelligence or if any of it could be shared. I think these are important questions. Governments, the US in particular, have touted "intelligence" as motives for military action in the past, and it has proven to be flawed or false.

I stood at the back willing Mr Carney to notice me. I waited patiently. I raised my hand at every opportunity almost like the kid in the class who knows the answer and is desperate for the teacher to call on him.

I watched the press secretary answer questions on the Royal baby and American football. I watched him call on the American networks and allow them two or three follow-ups or even questions on different topics. I watched as he occasionally allowed his eye to wander into the second or third row to call on someone he knew to ask a question he was prepared for. And then I watched as he thanked everyone, picked up his hefty briefing folder and left.

And I wondered if I'd use my powers of invisibility for good or evil. It was an exercise in futility and frustration. And I wasn't the only one ignored and annoyed.

Now I understand that the press secretary representing the president of the United States would call on the domestic media first. That is right and proper. But the briefing is dominated by the same faces from the same organisations, often asking the same questions only in different form.

There is rarely an opportunity for a fresh face to throw a question. Never a thought that the big names should perhaps just get to ask two well-aimed questions and let others come in.

I know one correspondent who has been going to the briefings off and on for two years. She raises her hand and catches the eye, but is never called to ask. "Seat fillers," she says. "We make the briefing room look busy and that's good TV."

Incredibly one of the favoured reporters earlier this year criticised the media for not doing more to probe and question the Obama administration on its actions and policies. The irony of the moment perhaps passed him by on the front seat.

I accept it is rare, almost unheard of, for an "outsider" to ask a question of perhaps the French or the Chinese or the Russians.

But America leads the world in so much, places itself at the heart of so many things and wants to know what is happening and what is considered important elsewhere.

Perhaps taking a question might be a start.