The media column: The lobby system poisons political journalism

The most exclusive and strangest club in Britain has long been the gathering together – in a tower in Westminster – of the parliamentary lobby correspondents of Britain. Last week, that club, though not quite disbanded, was damaged by the Government's decision to end the morning briefings that its members – and its members alone – could have with the Prime Minister's spokesperson every weekday of the parliamentary year.

The most exclusive and strangest club in Britain has long been the gathering together – in a tower in Westminster – of the parliamentary lobby correspondents of Britain. Last week, that club, though not quite disbanded, was damaged by the Government's decision to end the morning briefings that its members – and its members alone – could have with the Prime Minister's spokesperson every weekday of the parliamentary year.

In 1990, I became the BBC's Head of News at Westminster, and nominally took charge of the political correspondents who worked for the radio and television bulletins. There were more than a dozen of them, and the politics of their competing careers made Mo Mowlam's complaints of backbiting within government look mild and oversensitive. They all wanted to be on television not radio (which, in some cases, was asking a lot of the viewers), and they all wanted to be on the evening news and not BBC Breakfast.

What, however, held them together in the face of the outside world and gave them status in the eyes of their producers or among the orcish ranks of regional or policy reporters (from whom they had originally risen) was their membership of the lobby. This entitled them to go where others might not, to the twice daily briefings and (hence the name) into the member's lobby, where they could accost or be accosted by MPs. It was and is their badge of arrival.

Up in the tower, where the political journalists live and work in conditions largely unchanged since Edward the Confessor's day (except there is no money to put straw down on the floors), the select vote for a chair of the lobby and attend lobby functions. In my time, the administrator of the lobby was a fierce woman, right out of Dickens's Circumlocution Office, who was renowned for her bureaucratic caprice.

This was in the very late Thatcher and early Major period, and the entire arrangement struck me then (and strikes me still) as being corrupt. Defenders of the lobby (mostly political editors who have been around too long) argue that the lobby system, with its band of élite journos sticking spikes into Alastair Campbell, exhibits a "bloody-minded persistence" and a "refusal to be fobbed off". And sometimes – very occasionally – this is true. But more usually, they display a "rush to story", in which they create between them an orthodoxy about a story – which then becomes impossible to dislodge.

This stifling of stories was one factor that led The Independent and one or two other newspapers in the late Eighties to boycott the lobby. Another factor was the famous "lobby terms" in which reportage had to be couched. Under lobby terms, you could quote the words, but you could not reveal the source. This is different from "off the record", when, effectively, there has been no conversation at all. So we had "sources close to...".

"Lobby terms" are nothing more than a conspiracy against the citizen, who cannot tell who is speaking and therefore how to evaluate a story – other than to accept it at the journalist's own evaluation. So the hack gets his or her story, the editor fills the page, the anonymous politician gets the point over (often in exaggerated form) at no cost to him or herself. And only the reader has no idea of what to make of it.

This cowardly anonymity, effectively banned by American newspapers, has poisoned our political journalism. For example, I still do not know who is supposed to have briefed against Mo Mowlam and why, and I simply cannot judge whether she is a woman wronged, or a woman deluded. But even worse, it has leeched into all of our other journalism, too. If, for example, Ulrika Jonsson or her agent want to say something about Sven Goran Eriksson, and want their exact words to be used, then they should have the courage to be named, or they should stay silent.

So, by all means let's kill the lobby, but let's also kill their bloody terms.

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