Much of the mystery surrounding the Parliamentary Lobby system has been debunked over the last 20 years, though it still exists in more open form. I shall not, now, receive an official reprimand for writing about it.
Harry Boyne was a stalwart. Political correspondent of the Daily Telegraph when many of the current political editors of the media first arrived in the Press Gallery of the Commons to report politics in the early 1970s, he was one of the number of top correspondents whose by-lines we had grown up with.
H. B. Boyne of the Telegraph, David Wood of the Times, Francis Boyd of the Manchester Guardian, Walter Terry of the Mail, Tony Shrimsley of the Sun, James Margach of the Sunday Times, Nora Beloff of the Observer, Ian Waller of the Sunday Telegraph, Bob Carvel of the London Evening Standard and John Dickinson of the London Evening News were all there. Along with Joe Haines, who had gone to No 10 as Wilson's press secretary.
It was a fine generation. They were a desperate but wonderful bunch. They all had their different strengths and weaknesses. Some were flash, others aloof, some flew "kites" - as stories flown by reporters for politicians, to test public reaction; others were painfully reliant on particular sources. Boyne appeared to be none of those. Dour, but friendly, discreet but meticulously correct in his reporting, he was a fine reflection of the old Telegraph.
He would sit in Lobby meetings, listening to press secretaries like Joe Haines (Wilson) and Donald Maitland (Heath), taking down every word in rapid shorthand. The next day, on the front page of the Telegraph there would appear an edited, but often verbatim transcript of every word uttered, without sourcing it to No 10. That was Boyne's job and he performed his duty with quiet dignity and superb skill.
Many things changed since Boyne retired in the mid-1970s. He was the last Lobby correspondent to wear the uniform pinstripe trousers and black jacket for Budget Day; Frank Johnson (then of the Sun, now Editor of the Spectator) would no longer be rebuked for wearing his mackintosh in the Press Gallery bar; I would no longer be admonished for making notes in a notebook in the Members' Lobby. The Lobby system was a supremely British institution: sub-masonic, full of stuffy pomposity, rank, class, and petty snobbery. Those who had been to public school said it was very much like that, and we were the oiks.
Vestiges remain. Some political editors are so insecure that they need their name on every front page political story; some senior journalists, who should know better, still go into huddles and discuss the way they are going to treat a story - seeking comfort in numbers - and sordid expenses fiddles persist.
Boyne found it difficult to delegate work to his juniors, though the Telegraph covered a lot of ground with the wonderful Rowley Summerscales as the reporter who dealt mainly, and superbly, with the internal machinations of the Labour Party. Boyne, to his credit, appeared to be something of a loner. As for expenses, he was said to be so old-fashioned that, when he put in a bill for dinner with a politician, he would deduct the cost of his own meal.
For all that, however, Boyne represented the spirit of an age. Having joined the ranks of the Black Watch at the start of the Second World War, he rose to the rank of Major and was seriously wounded in the advance that followed the Normandy landings. He was an officer and a gentleman and a Tory. And he cared for his colleagues. After the war, he returned to work for an antediluvian employer, the notoriously anti-union D.C. Thomson in Dundee - and he was sacked for refusing to accept a ban on his membership of the National Union of Journalists.
That was in the late 1940s. Thirty years later, during a strike at the Daily Telegraph, Boyne, wearing his customary dark suit and bowler hat, and carrying a folded umbrella, joined an NUJ picket line outside his paper's Fleet Street office. With courage and his customary politeness he famously handed the owner, Lord Hartwell, a letter of protest. At the time, it was said that the proprietor had rejected the journalists' call for more money, saying: "You can tell the monkeys I'll not be pushing any more nuts through the bars." Some still wonder where the militancy came from.
Boyne was out of work for six months after D.C. Thomson sacked him. It was widely believed that he was denied the expected Hartwell "top hat" pension when he retired from the Telegraph in 1976. Wilson, the Labour Prime Minister, gave Boyne a knighthood; the Telegraph gave him a kick in the teeth. He was even denied a farewell lunch.
Sir Harry Boyne retired to a job as a court usher at the Old Bailey. In the early 1980s, with Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, he served for a while as Director of Communications at Conservative Central Office. Some things never change.
- Anthony BevinsReuse content