It's opening time for Westminster ? Let us in to the Westminster club Open to persuasion Just for the record, please Mr Blair

Major described the Lobby as 'putrid' but he still uses it.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
At his farewell reception earlier this year Chris Meyer spoke about his interview for the job of John Major's press secretary. Major had asked him what he knew about the "Lobby". Meyer, then a press officer at the Foreign Office, told Major that the Lobby had a "more pungent smell about it than diplomatic correspondents". To which Major replied that it was "putrid".

For those not in the know, the "Lobby" is the collective term for that select band of political correspondents who operate in and around the Palace of Westminster, surviving on off-the-record briefings and official nods and winks.

A Lobby correspondent at that Meyer reception told me the story on so- called "Lobby terms", which means that I can't reveal my source, but I can retell the story. It happens every day. Lobby correspondents are given information that the source wants them to have. It is then filtered to the public. The source is never identified and, therefore, never challenged.

The system achieved notoriety in the 1980s when Sir Bernard Ingham was Margaret Thatcher's press secretary. He used the Lobby to undermine ministers, such as Francis Pym, who had fallen out of favour with the Prime Minister. That was one reason why the Independent, the Guardian and the Scotsman withdrew for a period.

But the Lobby flourishes and is still used to deceive the public and undermine troublesome politicians. And the sharp practice is not confined to the government side.

Consider what happened to Clare Short. During a recent television interview she said that she "personally, given the level of [her] salary, would not mind paying more taxes". She had hardly left the studio before a media debate had begun about her "professionalism". An un-named source in the Labour leader's office gave the following quote to journalists: "Colleagues are questioning her competence and professionalism.". Which colleagues? To whom were they muttering their doubts? It didn't matter and it didn't need to be true. The point was for the party machine to send a message to any other member of the Shadow Cabinet who might have individual views: "Do not speak out of turn.".

The story could have been killed by pointing out that her views, as she had made plain, were personal, and that policy, in any event, was made by the Shadow Cabinet. But it was a powerful display of the force of an unattributable briefing. And an equally powerful reminder that, despite its rhetoric of open government, a future Labour government will not readily relinquish such a weapon.

The rules governing the reporting of parliament and politics were devised in 1884 when reporters would talk to MPs in the Members' Lobby in the House of Commons and then produce "considered" articles for the next day's newspapers. The Lobby system was born and has thrived.

It suited both sides to have a conduit for informed, but unattributable, opinions and gossip. Anything that subsequently proved embarrassing to a politician could always be denied later. A journalist who kept his side of the bargain would be sure to receive more "inside" information. The idea of secrecy became institutionalised.

It is easy to see how addictive such a process can become. The system works for those who work within it. Journalists, particularly the favoured ones, get their "steer" and "spin" on a plate; the Downing Street operatives have the freedom "to push the story their way" without being held to account. Even those who recognise the system as putrid would find it hard to give up such a useful weapon.

Yet, as scandal after scandal shows us, never has there been a greater need for transparent government and close scrutiny of politicians. The Lobby system has become an obstacle to open government. It is the product of closed government, of voters not having the right to know. One of Labour's senior media handlers recently boasted that New Labour had "all the quality political editors in place". Fortunately this is clearly not the case. But the boast is chilling. Does New Labour really want to enter the 21st century with a parliamentary reporting system based on manipulation of compliant journalists?

We are not, as some Lobby enthusiasts might argue, condemned to Lobby news or no news.Television and radio journalists succeed or fail by what they can get on tape and thus on the record. When I was a producer with ITN I soon realised that being outside the Lobby club had its advantages. I could "doorstep" politicians without being ostracised by the club. Nor was the "spin" or the unattributable suggestion of possible future developments the point. My task was to get on-the-record responses: to ask the questions that the viewers wanted to put themselves. The question and visual image were as important in telling the story as the answer, or evasion, that the question provoked. Often it is the innocuous comment, the "innocent" question, that provides the developing picture. To have this on the record, rather than unattributably through the Lobby, gives broadcasters the opportunity to tell the whole story.

The "beef war" was a good example. When Major announced that Britain would embark on a programme of non-cooperation with our European partners he gave the impression of a short sharp assault on the citadels of Brussels. On 4 June in the House of Commons he talked up the action when he said "there will be a clear and staged process towards a complete lifting of the ban". Three-quarters of an hour later at the regular 4pm Lobby meeting his press secretary clarified the boss's words. The word "complete" was not mentioned. The expression used instead was that there would be "building blocks" for a framework which would lead to a lifting of the ban. His task was to talk down expectations in preparation for the inevitable climb- down. If the press secretary had been on camera the electorate would have been able to make an informed judgement on Major's battle bluster.

The off-the-record and unattributable source will always form part of political reportage - and so it should if it brings to public attention stories which would otherwise remain untold. But that is not to say that our main source of political news should be via unattributable briefings.

With victory so close, the Labour Party, after 17 years in the wilderness, may believe that it has to be "authoritarian". It may not realise that smearing a member of the Shadow Cabinet as unprofessional, albeit unattributably, may lead voters to draw undesired conclusions.

The danger is that New Labour may be beginning to believe that it really can hold "all the quality political editors in place". But it must surely know that proprietors and editors will shift their political allegiance when it suits them. Tony Blair should watch and learn from what has happened to Mr Major.

And the Lobby may prove an increasingly inefficient filter through which to talk to the electorate. It is already competing with a media which demands 24-hour soundbites matched with the insatiable vanity of politicians in search of outlets for their every opinion. The mystique of the Lobby and the promise of off-the-record character assassinations cannot withstand this dual onslaught.

As a BBC news editor I chaired post-Lobby-briefing meetings with correspondents not able to attend, news organisers and producers. It was a sedate little affair with a maximum of 10 people on any given day. Now that meeting is announced over the Tannoy in the BBC's political centre at Millbank and it is open to anyone working that day in the BBC. Bravo to the BBC.

We should put the Lobby out of its misery. Open the windows, Tony. Let out the putrid smell, and talk directly to the people.

The author was director of campaigns and communications for the Labour Party, February 1995 - January 1996

Comments