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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

‘Instagram diplomacy’: concerns grow over Liz Truss’s publicly funded five photos a day | Conservative leadership

When photographs appeared last week of a faux fur-clad Liz Truss in Moscow’s Red Square, it was impossible not to draw a comparison to an almost identical picture of Margaret Thatcher in Soviet Russia 35 years ago. Yet the arresting image was only the latest in a torrent of official pictures of the foreign secretary’s exploits.

There are, in fact, very few moments in Truss’s five-month stint at the Foreign Office that have not been caught for posterity by publicly funded official photographers. A review of the government’s official account on the photo-sharing platform Flickr reveals that since the day she took up the post, more than 700 pictures have been uploaded featuring Truss – an average of more than four-and-a-half a day, or about one photograph for every five hours in the job.

While there are brief interludes depicting Steve Barkley at Ikea, Priti Patel visiting Boots or Rishi Sunak stroking a parrot, the official stream of photographs is dominated by Truss, now seen by many Tories as the frontrunner to replace Johnson should he be forced from office before the next election. Sydney, Moscow, Mexico City and Mumbai are just some of the locations forming the backdrops for Truss, with each visit documented in detail.

Truss and Jens Stoltenberg on 24 January this year.
Truss and Jens Stoltenberg on 24 January this year. Photograph: No 10 Downing Street

Some of the most notable shots include fist-bumping with Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, driving a tank in military gear in Estonia, chatting with Henry Kissinger in New York (her run across the Brooklyn Bridge was also captured), sitting in a F35B fighter jet on the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, and staring down her formidable Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. Worryingly for potential leadership rival Sunak, she was also photographed on the chancellor’s home turf – opening the London Stock Exchange.

When at home, she is captured in the grandeur of Chevening, her grace-and-favour country mansion. Zoom calls are also included. There is even a picture of Truss meeting one of her own ministers.

Truss during a morning jog over Brooklyn Bridge in September.
Truss during a morning jog over Brooklyn Bridge in September. Photograph: Simon Dawson/No 10 Downing Street

The foreign secretary’s new-found life through a lens has not gone unnoticed by her ministerial colleagues. It has also raised criticisms about the prolific use of official government photographers. Critics say their skills are now helping Tory leadership hopefuls show their best sides. While Truss dominates the government’s official photostream, Sunak actually has his own Treasury Flickr account, though it has only managed about 340 photographs of the chancellor since the September reshuffle that saw Truss arrive at the Foreign Office.

It is not unusual for foreign secretaries to find themselves in front of the camera. Yet some Tories regard her very public outings as a straight-forward attempt to curry favour with party members before a possible leadership election. One minister put it bluntly: “It is an ignorant way to behave.”

Truss visits British troops on deployment to Estonia last November.
Truss rides in a tank while visiting British troops on deployment to Estonia last November. Photograph: Simon Dawson/No 10 Downing Street

Her odyssey also contrasts strongly with some of her more photo-shy colleagues. Environment secretary George Eustice, for example, appears to have featured in just three photographs on the official Flickr account since September – and one of those is his official cabinet portrait. The other two were taken as he entered Downing Street for a cabinet meeting in November.

The prime minister has also been making use of his own official photographer, Andrew Parsons, and has made visits to hospitals and vaccine centres as pressure has grown over alleged lockdown parties in Downing Street. Twelve such trips have appeared on No 10’s Flickr account since the start of November.

Alan Sparrow, chair of the UK Picture Editors’ Guild, said that while independent photographers were still invited on ministerial trips, the increasing use of the government’s own snappers raised potential pitfalls. “My initial reaction to the staff photographers was that I feared that the other pool positions would be shut down and that we would be obliged to use just the handouts,” he said. “So far that has not happened. However, there are no guarantees – it just needs a change of staff or attitudes and we would find ourselves in a position where the only images available are those given out by No 10.”

Political opponents are more scathing about the official portraits, given that they are a potentially powerful element of a party leadership campaign. “At a moment when Europe faces its biggest security crisis in decades, Liz Truss seems more interested in Instagram diplomacy than working with our allies,” said Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson. “These serious times deserve serious leaders. We need a foreign secretary focused on the task at hand, not using a taxpayer-funded photographer to further her leadership ambitions.”

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said: “It is vital that the government and its ministers communicate to the public and other audiences what they are doing for the UK. Pictures help tell that story. Social media and digital engagement are critical communications tools, and our photographers play a leading role in supporting the government’s digital communications activity.”

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