What the journalists won't tell you about party conferences

Here beginneth three weeks of Hogarthian sluicing. The party conference season opens today with the Lib Dems in Bournemouth. Next week it's Labour in Brighton, then the Conservatives in Manchester. Hic.

At this time of year, the bar staff of the conference hotels – starting with the Royal Bath – can resemble Usain Bolt before taking the blocks. They uncoil their muscles, rotate necks, flick the tension out of their corkscrew wrists, aware that a great burst of activity is imminent. The conferences are perhaps the last great media expenses splurge. And all for, well, what?

Coverage is seldom related to what is said in the conference hall. Don't be so old-fashioned. Conferences are a neat example of how political "news" is made, and the emphasis is on backroom briefing, stunt and private nudge.

Much of the news effort is devoted to what will happen tomorrow. The leaders' speeches are flagged up a day or two in advance. No frontbencher's speech goes untrailed. Gossip about who insulted whom late at night, properly the fare of diary columns, is inflated into page leads. This is placed way ahead of factual reports of political ideas and arguments. These are generally consigned to "quotation of the day" columns or "nibs" ("news in brief").

The rolling news channels interview has-beens and professional pundits. Jolly kind of them, too. But the activists' speeches are largely ignored, visible chiefly behind the BBC's Nick Robinson's left ear. This is undesirable from a civic point of view in that it discourages political engagement. It is also poor journalism. Sometimes the on-the-floor speeches are interesting and even astonishing. Two years ago, Iain Duncan Smith gave an absolute belter of a speech which laid out a new Tory tack on social values. It went practically unreported as straight news. Only the sketchwriters noticed it.

You might expect me, as Daily Mail sketcher, to say this, but often we are the only inkies in the hall. If lucky, we will be joined by a correspondent or two from the regionals, including Scotland, and the odd hack trying to sleep off a hangover. But the rest of the troops are stuck in their airless cubicles in the press room, trawling the computers for wire stories or being shouted at down the telephone by desk operatives in London telling them what the real story is. It often involves trailing the Prime Minster's wife as she tours the conference stalls, or scrambling off to the fringe to catch whichever gaffe-prone MP is in that day's headlights.

It doesn't really matter who you are, be it daily newspaper hack, Sunday specialist, BBC researcher, telly executive. You all have to be accommodated, fed and (ahem) watered. The late-night drinking is astonishing. In my secondary guise as theatre critic, I often return to the conference hotels well after midnight, having been to a show in London, only to find the place so packed that it is impossible to reach the bar. Last year it was at 3am in the Midland Hotel bar, Manchester, that the PM's then spokesman, convivial fellow, announced the departure of Ruth Kelly from Government. Much fumbling of mobiles ensued, befuddled digits struggling to press the numbers for newsdesks. That corker of a yarn justified years of swivel-eyed conference benders. What a night!

Conferences are expensive. Even before the bar bills, managing editors have to pay for security passes, press-hall telephones and wireless access. One hears that the Conservatives have imposed particularly larcenous charges this year. Why do the media attend in such numbers? Conferences are good for massaging contacts but something else may be at work here: the media's desire to assert its status in the political firmament. Let me buy you a glass of champagne at the Grand Hotel bar, minister, and allow everyone to see how matey we are. Then there is the private schmoozing. The editor of The Sun dines with the Prime Minister. Tory grandees invite Fleet Street bigshots to drinks in their rooms, Pol Roger cooling in the bath. The Daily Mirror's thrash for Labour politicos is Bacchanalian.

And so it all begins, this three-week drinkathon. The BBC sends mobile studios, miles of cables, clipboard poppets, World Service eggheads, online nerds and Andrew Neil's make-up artiste. Sky News dispatches Adam Boulton, Jon Craig and a hit squad of producers and camera geezers. As far as the newspapers are concerned, most lobby reporters attend, along with political columnists (who seem to spend most of the time in their hotel rooms), editors and their furtive deputies. Even the leader writers turn up, knobble-headed, hygienically challenged, whinneying as they examine (eyes up close, glasses off) the texts of the speeches.

It's all tremendous fun, for us lot at least. God knows what readers think.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Content Manager - Publishing

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst - High Wycombe - £30,000

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst role...

Guru Careers: Talent Manager

£30-35k (P/T - Pro Rata) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienc...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn