Adam Boulton, in the lobby, with the SMS

The member's lobby must change to accomodate new technology, says Sky's political editor
Click to follow
The Independent Online

So much for the secret brotherhood! Pandora, The Independent's gossip column, has lifted the lid on the trouble I'm in with the lobby, by revealing that I may be suspended for texting information on to Sky's breaking news strap while a parliamentary briefing was still under way.

So much for the secret brotherhood! Pandora, The Independent's gossip column, has lifted the lid on the trouble I'm in with the lobby, by revealing that I may be suspended for texting information on to Sky's breaking news strap while a parliamentary briefing was still under way.

As I remember it, Pravda, the play by David Hare and Howard Brenton, enshrines the stereotype of the lobby hack. Returning late to the office - from the opera, of course - the upper-class correspondent languidly dismisses tomorrow morning's exclusive as something "we" (ie the lobby and the politicians) had known about for some time but thought it better not to trouble the readers with.

While I accept the need for lobby rules - and even sanctions - because I believe that the lobby is a good thing for political journalists and the public they serve, if it's a secret society I want my money back. In more than 20 years of attending briefings at various undisclosed locations, I can remember hearing only a handful of actual secrets. Most of these revelations date from some time ago, such as the time in the Eighties when John Biffen, then the Leader of the House, admitted that the government was about to lose a by-election, and Bernard Ingham retorted that Biffen was a "semi-detached" member of the Cabinet.

What I have learnt from lobby briefings are countless details of government activities, lines to take and sensitive sore spots. Most of it is useful information, and I have retailed all of it to my viewers. Far from being a conspiracy between politicians and journalists against the public, the lobby is a conduit from politicians to the public - and sometimes a very frank one at that. The briefers know that what they say will be disclosed - mistakes will be fully exploited. Alastair Campbell will never forget that "bog-standard" (as used in his description of ordinary comprehensive schools) is not a true synonym for "standard". And we happily wiped millions off sterling when Ingham got muddled between "up" and "down" in the foreign exchange market.

For all that, it's obvious that the lobby can't go on as it has done since it was founded in the 19th century for two reasons: because the present Government doesn't want it to, and because of technological advances (including my Nokia).

New Labour doesn't like the lobby largely because it exists under parliamentary, rather than governmental, patronage. The Government has partial control over only one of the lobby's three daily meeting places: the 11am briefing held at the invitation of the Prime Minister's official spokesman. There's little that spokesman can do about the afternoon briefing hosted by the lobby in its meeting room in Parliament, other than not turn up to talk to it. And the MPs who talk off the record to individual correspondents in the members' lobby itself are mercifully beyond restraint. (There are about 200 lobby correspondents allowed access to MPs during Parliament's working hours, roughly half the total of journalists accredited at Westminster.)

Downing Street unilaterally cancelled the weekly "Sunday lobbies" - "nothing in them for us", according to one spin doctor. Now, the morning briefings have become the main battleground. In the bright new dawn of 1997, all briefings were on the record but attributed to spokespeople rather than named individuals - but Campbell revealed too much. Once the Government started to have a record to defend, and opponents looking for mistakes, it could not afford to be so frank. Campbell withdrew into the shadows. Civil servants were fielded in his place, whose chief virtue for the Government was that they were ostensibly "out of the loop" and could plausibly deny knowledge on most sensitive topics.

It remains an uncomfortable arrangement. Professionally non-partisan civil servants are dangerously exposed - as Godric Smith discovered when he followed his instructions to deny any involvement by the con man Peter Foster in Cherie Blair's house-buying activities. No 10 promised to thicken the briefing mix with a parade of ministers and officials on the record. But this was stillborn, once the first minister fielded, David Blunkett, declined to take questions on all aspects of government activity, and was shortly followed by the Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Michael Walker, who wondered out loud whether Britain had the resources to fight the Iraq war.

No 10 has tried to downgrade the briefings by moving them to rented premises near Piccadilly at the Foreign Press Association. The net effect of this is to take more than an hour out of any parliamentary correspondent's day - making it virtually impossible, for example, for regional evening newspaper correspondents to attend.

However, the lobby frustrated any attempt to let the morning briefings dwindle into insignificance. Organisations such as The Sun and the Evening Standard lay on daily limos for their grandees to make sure that the Government is held to account, and television companies have spent thousands so that correspondents can report live from the FPA.

A No 10 proposal to televise briefings remains on the table for after the election. The West Wing-style briefings (texting permitted) seem a logical next step. But the same difficulty would remain for a third-term Labour government: who could speak with confidence on its behalf each day? Ministers don't want it and it's not fair on a civil servant. If the current briefings were screened, Tom Kelly, the Prime Minister's official spokesman, would quickly become a laughing stock because of the evasions and obfuscations he is forced to use.

The Conservatives are promising a fresh start and proper premises if they are elected. But then, so did Labour in opposition. Significantly, Michael Howard, like Tony Blair before him, prefers private briefings and press conferences to reinstating the weekly Leader of the Opposition's lobbies, which fell into disuse when Neil Kinnock tried to ban News Corporation journalists during the Wapping dispute. (Here, too, political journalists acted together to prevent politicians stopping any one of us gathering information for our viewers, listeners or readers.)

The Independent may tease me now by calling me "one of the biggest beasts in the Westminster village", but my career has been with two start-up companies, Sky and TVam, which were much mocked and disliked in the beginning. In both cases, membership of the lobby gave us the access and foothold to do our job and build credible political news coverage. The parliamentary institutions of the lobby and the gallery gave us that opportunity without prejudice, and the governments of the time respected it.

If I believe in one thing, it's hard-headed sceptical journalism. So it pains me to admit that there is one institution worth respecting, whatever its passing silly little rules. Keep it under your hat, old boy, and absolutely no texting!

LOWDOWN ON THE LOBBY

* There are more than 150 accredited lobby correspondents.

* They get their name because they are allowed access to the Members' Lobby, where MPs gather next to the chamber in the House of Commons.

* A strictly limited number of lobby passes are issued to each media organisation. Most national papers have five accredited lobby correspondents.

* The lobby was officially created in 1884 when a list of accredited journalists allowed access to the Commons Members' Lobby was drawn up

* Conversations in the Members' Lobby are strictly "off the record" and unattributable, although lobby correspondents are largely self-policing.

* Historically, briefings were referred to as "red" and "blue" mantle - briefings by the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Commons - although such secrecy has long since disappeared.

* Lobby briefings with the Prime Minister's official spokesman take place twice a day. Morning briefings were traditionally held in a basement room in 10 Downing Street, although they now take place at the Foreign Press Association. Afternoon lobby briefings are held in a small room in the Commons.

* Under lobby rules, it is regarded as a "point of honour" for reporters to remain to the end of a lobby briefing and "not make use of anything that is said until it ends".

* When it launched in 1986, The Independent challenged the system and boycotted the lobby.

* Gus O'Donnell, John Major's spokesman, ended lobby secrecy and agreed to allow briefings whose existence could not previously be reported to be attributed to "Downing Street sources".

* Labour introduced on-the-record briefings in 1997. Previously, briefings were strictly unattributable, forcing journalists to use phrases such as "Downing Street believes" or "sources close to the Prime Minister". Today, briefings are on the record, but off camera. Transcripts are posted daily on the Number 10 website, but television and radio broadcasts are banned.

Comments