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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.