Ben Shephard shows empty chair as Tory MP dodges interview

The Tories are running scared of the media again, the poppets.

Last week, The Mirror reported that ministers' appearances will be reduced to three mornings a week and that they will only appear when there is an “announcement” or new government policy to cover. Normally, someone from the government appears on channels like Sky News everyday.

Rishi Sunak is being criticised for the reported decision but it is by no means the first time a Tory has been scared of journalism.

Indeed, if we take a little trip down memory lane we find quite a few instances when they've shuddered at the thought of a negative write-up and some difficult questions.

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Here are 14 times the Tories have taken one look at the media - and ran a mile:

1. Banned journalists from leadership hustings

This summer, Sunak and Liz Truss schlepped around the country, pitching themselves to members of the Tory party at various hustings in the hope of winning votes to become the next PM.

Media could attend these events too, and statements made by politicians out on the campaign trail frequently made headlines.

So it is a bit BAD that political website PoliticsJOE claimed their reporter was banned from a husting in Norwich in August because the Tories don't like their style of coverage.

2. Failed to show up when the energy price cap increased

Meanwhile, as a tiny proportion of the country was deciding who the next PM should be, the country was still running (kind of) but no minister was put forward to do the media rounds on the same August morning when the energy regulator Ofgem confirmed the price cap for dual fuel for an average household will surge to £3,549 per year.

Journalists and politicians alike were quick to condemn the government.

3. Avoided a debate on climate change

The Tories have form for going missing during crisis points. When Johnson didn't turn up for a leader's debate on climate change in 2019, and tried to ask the then environment secretary Michael Gove to go instead, he was empty-chaired with an ice sculpture by Channel 4.

The Tories complained to regulator Ofcom but Ofcom said the channel had "editorial freedom" to do so.

4. Liz Truss dodged an Andrew Neil interview

Back to the leadership contest though and in July, Sunak sat down and had a chat with Andrew Neil who put his policies to the test. Truss, on the other hand, declined to be interviewed by the political journalist.

People thought it was thoroughly bad form.

This wouldn't be the only time Truss avoided an interview during the leadership campaign.

5. So did Boris Johnson

Perhaps she was taking a leaf out of the incumbent prime minister's book. Famously, Johnson also turned down a chance to chat with Neil in 2019.

Neil said during one of his shows: "We have been asking him for weeks now to give us a date, a time, a venue. As of now, none has been forthcoming."

He added: "It is not too late. We have an interview prepared. Oven-ready, as Mr Johnson likes to say.

"The theme running through our questions is trust - and why at so many times in his career, in politics and journalism, critics and sometimes even those close to him have deemed him to be untrustworthy. It is, of course, relevant to what he is promising us all now."

"Leaders' interviews have been a key part of the BBC's prime-time election coverage for decades," he added.

"We do them, on your behalf, to scrutinise and hold to account those who would govern us. That is democracy."

It didn't stop Johnson from winning the general election, unfortunately, and the rest, as they say, is history.

6. Johnson hides in a fridge

Also during the 2019 election, Johnson did his best to try and avoid a grilling from Piers Morgan, while the journalist was still a host on Good Morning Britain. Johnson found himself cornered by cameras while visiting a farm in Leeds but rather than talk to Morgan or Susanna Reid he instead hid in a fridge, thus creating a truly iconic moment in the early days of his premiership.

7. Banned journalists from press briefings

One of the things that made history during Johnson's premiership is when one of his aides banned certain reporters from attending press briefings.

In February 2020, Lee Cain, tried to exclude reporters from the Mirror, the i, HuffPost, PoliticsHome, the Independent and others from an official government briefing.

This led to other journalists boycotting the briefing altogether in solidarity and Labour accusing the Tories of "Trumpian tactics".

8. Disappeared after terror attack

In the same month that year, there was a stabbing in Streatham, South London.

Sudesh Amman, 20, was shot dead by surveillance officers after the attack on two people, who survived their injuries.

It soon became known that he had been in prison previously for terror offences, and had signalled his intention to commit further crimes.

But when journalists wanted to know more about how he slipped through the net? Tumbleweeds.

9. Skipped an interview amid economic concerns

Back again to the present and Tories dodging questions about the energy crisis was preceded by them dodging questions about the wider state of the economy.

A Tory MP was empty chaired on Good Morning Britain in August after skipping an interview, despite the Bank Of England’s warning the country is headed towards a recession, with inflation climbing to 13.3 per cent.

Presenter Ben Shephard said: “We did invite a minister onto the show. Despite what we’ve just heard… they didn’t want to turn up. They haven’t got time for us in their busy schedule.”

“If there [are] any ministers out there that would be willing to answer some of those questions… it would be nice to have a minister come in to join us and answer some of those questions. Maybe put our minds at rest or maybe offer us some sort of hope,” he continued.

“If they don’t come in, we can’t see that, can we?”

10. Avoided Partygate questions...

As well as the economy, the Tories were loathed to entertain concerns about government staffers breaking Covid rules during the pandemic.

Yes, get your candles ready and make a wish because we are talking about Partygate again.

In January 2022, GMB empty chaired Brandon Lewis, after the prime minister was forced to apologise for attending a 'bring your own booze' party at Downing Street in May 2020.

Shephard told viewers: "Unfortunately Brandon Lewis is doing the rounds on a number of other TV shows this morning, but he won't come on Good Morning Britain for some reason.

"We did invite him.

Kate Garraway added: "He's on Sky News, BBC Breakfast, Radio 4, LBC and did an interview with ITV News, and we just have an empty chair in Westminster."

11. ... Twice...

Later in the month, Truss was empty-chaired by the same show for not turning up, and they went one step further by bringing out a cake, referencing the infamous moment MP Conor Burns, claimed Johnson was “ambushed with a cake” when he broke lockdown rules by celebrating his birthday during lockdown.

Presenter Adil Ray said: “As often happens when there's a big news story around for the Government, when they’ve got their backs to the wall and they need to answer questions, is that they disappear.”

He said: “We do have cake. Maybe they’d like to come in. We’ve got some cake – we can offer you cake, cheese, wine.”

Co-host Susanna Reid replied: “Don’t tell me you’re planning to ambush them with cake, Adil."

He replied: “Well… you call it an ambush, I call it a party. If ministers are around, we’d love you to speak to the UK.

“There is a police investigation going on and the least you could do is answer some questions.”

12. Thrice...

Then, having clearly not learnt their lesson, the Tories dodged Partygate questions again in May, following the publication of the damning Sue Gray report into dodgy lockdown behaviour.

Once again, the government snubbed GMB and they didn't take it lying down.

Garraway said: "Coming up, we’re going to be joined by Labour’s Lisa Nandy.

"We would love to speak to Stephen Barclay, Downing Street chief of staff. He is the man – the government minister – we normally speak to them around 8.30.

"He’s too busy this morning, we don’t know why. The chair is there for you Mr Barclay if you want to go and sit in it, we’d love to talk to you and hear all your points."

Shephard added: "We’ll squeeze you in because of course, undoubtedly, our viewers and everyone at home will want to hear your points, especially today of all days."

13. Truss says no to the BBC

To the summer now, and former prime minister Truss faced criticism after pulling out of an interview with the BBC's Nick Robinson. Sunak was interviewed by the programme in August, but Truss said she could no longer spare the time.

14. Rishi Sunak snubs daily media rounds

That brings us to the most recent instance of Tory avoidance - Sunak doesn't want his ministers to face media scrutiny as often as they have so far.

Susanna Reid isn't happy about it and told immigration minister Robert Jenrick to pass a message to the prime minister.

The leaders of our country... how lucky can we get?

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