What a fluttering and squeaking has been set off by the Prime Minister's decision to open up Downing Street's twice-daily briefing.
What a fluttering and squeaking has been set off by the Prime Minister's decision to open up Downing Street's twice-daily briefing. No longer will political journalists who belong to a club called the parliamentary lobby have exclusive access to the morning sessions held at No 10. Any journalist will be able to turn up and ask questions. Where appropriate, officials or ministers from government departments will use the occasion to make statements.
Were it not for the over-heated reactions of political journalists, there would, frankly, not be much more to say about a minor change in the Government's relationship with the press. Yet such is the self-importance of lobby members that columns have been devoted to the subject and we have been invited to view the development as a sinister portent.
Sir Bernard Ingham, who was press secretary during Lady Thatcher's time at No 10, was quoted as saying that the announcement was a blow to democracy and that it was "an appalling local election day gimmick". If there had been a "blow to democracy" then indeed it would have been doubly bad to slip the news out when everyone was concentrating on the local election results. But what is the nature of this frightful buffet that democracy has apparently received?
We are reminded that the lobby was a system for briefing the press, 118 years old, dating back to Gladstone. At barely a moment's notice, Blair, the monster, has "axed it". Read on through the right-wing press and you will see how members of the lobby see themselves. They are the "most effective critics" of the Prime Minister. They are "well informed". They are entrusted with "special passes". They are "experienced and politically aware Westminster journalists" possessed of fearsome expertise in the techniques of interrogating Downing Street officials.
Some of them describe themselves as "senior" – though they are no more than old hacks. Others call themselves "select". I think arrogant would be nearer the truth. As one wrote yesterday: "any attempt to pin down ministers by seasoned political analysts will be swept aside as the man from the Havering Herald is invited to examine the generosity of the Government's plans for local cycle lanes." There it all is. Lobby members are seasoned, they are analysts, and the rest of the press is – havering, that is, given to talking foolishly or babbling.
So let us start at the beginning. Journalists' clubs are self-protection societies. They enable the less talented reporters to benefit from the expertise of the brighter members. After all, everybody hears the same questions and the same replies. The lobby, too, is often complicit with politicians, particularly when the Conservatives are in power. That is why membership is exclusive. Members have a horror of undesirables being admitted who might not understand the rules. The lobby elects its own officials and it is controlled by the "lumpen proletariat" of political reporters. In spirit, it is like an old craft combination or trade union. Other parts of the press do without such restrictive practices.
The lobby system also tends to enforce a consensus view about political developments. Members of the pack rarely question this once it has been formed. For when a reporter writes along the same lines as everybody else, he or she cannot be blamed if things turn out differently.
Unfortunately, political reporters as a group are often completely wrong. Last week, on the day of the local elections, for instance, one pass-carrying member of the lobby told his readers that voters seemed ready to give Tony Blair a drubbing. He commented that whereas voters are supposed to be influenced purely by local issues, in reality "the result will be a revealing snapshot of where the two main parties stand nationally". Of course, Tony Blair did not in the event receive a drubbing and local issues were more important than usual. Our lobby man was twice in error in just 24 hours.
The reason is that the lobby generally only knows one thing, the tittle-tattle of Westminster politics. About everything else its members are relatively ignorant. That is another reason why they don't want expert reporters outside their closed circle coming to Downing Street to raise questions about policy matters – say housing, or prison policy, or the trend in interest rates. They understand little about these subjects. Under the new arrangements, lobby members will be reduced to scribbling down the answers to questions put by others. I hope they learn something.
When it was founded 15 years ago, The Independent declined to belong to the lobby. The newspaper's political team, led by the late Tony Bevins, backed by reporters such as Colin Brown, Andrew Marr and John Pienaar, never missed an important story and wrote with a freshness that came from being outside the club.
We finally entered the lobby system when Thatcher and Ingham had gone, and stories could at last be attributed to the government spokesperson. I regret now that as editor I agreed; we should have hung on to our glorious independence. But at least I can rejoice that the Prime Minister himself has given a blow, not to democracy, but to mediocrity.Reuse content