Political Commentary: Conspirators and adulterers breathe freely again

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MANY years ago, on the Sunday Express, I was brought up by that stern Presbyterian Sir John Junor to believe that no one was interested in journalists. The story or the article was what mattered. The reader did not care about the hardships we had endured in obtaining it, or the difficulties we had experienced in writing it. This was then the prevailing editorial orthodoxy. I doubted it at the time: by which I mean, not that I was sure it was wrong, but that I was unsure whether it was right.

Then Private Eye came on the scene, filling its columns with stories about journalists and their usually disreputable activities. Most of the material published would, one might have thought, have been incomprehensible to anyone who was not already an habitue of what Lord Beaverbrook used to call disapprovingly 'El Vino's public house'.

Not a bit of it. The Eye's stories about journalists were enjoyed in Ammanford and understood in Aberdeen. By the time he was 14 my son had already read about Mr Geoffrey Wheatcroft. Indeed, my paternal stock rose markedly in his eyes when I was able to effect an introduction.

Clearly, there was something wrong with the theory of journalistic self-effacement. People may have liked to pretend that they did not want to read about what is still called Fleet Street. They nevertheless lapped it up with every appearance of relish, if the principal ingredients of the stories could be presented - as, without undue offence to truth, they usually could - as drunken, lecherous, venal, or all three.

In these circumstances, the newspapers' treatment of the proposal to bar journalists from the Terrace of the Commons has been somewhat surprising. In fact it is something more than a proposal, for Madam Speaker, the final authority, has accepted the recommendation of the relevant committee. As far as one can see, there is nothing more to be done.

The papers have proved remarkably acquiescent. There have been no editorials that I have read about the threat to the free flow of political information in a democracy. There have not even been allegations that the real reason for the prohibition, in the post-Yeo moral climate in the Conservative Party, is that MPs fear detection in the company of their mistresses.

For women like to be taken on to the Terrace. They can display themselves to advantage in their prettiest dresses and suck Pimm's, that reliable producer of hangovers, through a straw. There was an occasion a couple of years ago when a young woman was suspended by her ankles over the Thames. The perpetrator of this joke, or outrage, was as far as I remember a politician rather than a journalist. But it was the journalists present who, for some reason, received the blame.

It is even possible to detect which MPs are having affairs with their secretaries. The infallible signs are a cuff or sleeve pushed back by one party to reveal the other's wristwatch, a stray lock of hair patted into place, a speck or hair brushed off a lapel. It does not require the sensitivity of Marcel Proust or the powers of observation of Sherlock Holmes to spot an illicit liaison. We can tell. Oh yes, as Mr John Major would say. But we do not breathe a word, not even to our editors. We are the soul of discretion.

The privilege of access to the Terrace is not ancient. It was established by Robert Maxwell in the late 1960s, when he was Labour member for Buckingham and Chairman of the Services Committee. Before that the status of journalists was ambiguous. I remember once having a row - as everybody did - with George Brown, being ordered off the Terrace by him and refusing to go. Maxwell's reform granted access to members of the Lobby organisation and to those who, while not members of that group, had been granted lobby facilities.

Maxwell also refounded Annie's Bar, which still goes on (though its future has been called in question) and is now the only bar in the Palace of Westminster where journalists and politicians can meet on an equal basis, apart from the Lords' staff bar, which more that the Terrace is renowned for its illicit couples. Maxwell further sold off the Commons' wine cellar, an act of vandalism which did, however, benefit journalists, for he steamed off the labels and sold 1959 and 1961 chateau-bottled claret at 2/6 (or 12.5p) a glass.

It is claimed by the MPs that we abused the privilege. In particular, it is said, journalists used the Terrace who were not entitled to use it or, though themselves entitled to do so, insinuated others on to it. My own experience was that the policemen on duty were vigilant in guarding access. Part of the true explanation for the prohibition is that journalists, having more money than politicians - or, more precisely, having expense accounts - tended to walk around as if they owned the place, thereby causing irritation.

A more important part of the explanation is that we tend to see and to report things which MPs would prefer to be unseen and unreported: not so much illicit affairs as dangerous conspiracies. For spatial reasons, the Terrace is a less safe place in which to intrigue than any corridor or lobby. Particular offence seems to have been caused last year by an 'artist's impression' in the Sunday Express of a group of Conservative MPs ostensibly plotting against Mr Major. The offence was not, however, so great as to prevent the conspirators from requesting copies of the drawing from the newspaper.

These are edgy times. New Conservative members have been warned by the Whips against talking to journalists and told that their future prospects will be imperilled if they are thought indiscreet by those set in authority over them. It is not altogether fanciful to see the prohibition against journalists on the Terrace as the latest manifestation of the deterioration in the relations between Conservative Party and Conservative press. The days are long past when the chairman of the conference could welcome 'our good friends from the press' and receive a warm round of applause in response.

Conservative leaders have fallen out with Conservative papers, and vice versa, before now. The most celebrated encounter was perhaps betwen Stanley Baldwin and Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere in 1930, a fight Baldwin decisively won. But in the 1950s Winston Churchill was widely thought to be outstaying his welcome, while Anthony Eden never enjoyed the full confidence of the newspapers. The press was out to get Harold Macmillan after two journalists were imprisoned for refusing to disclose their sources to the Vassall tribunal.

But for sustained denigration Mr Major has suffered more than any recent Conservative prime minister. His sole remaining supporters are the Daily Express and the editor of the Evening Standard, Mr Stewart Steven, who occasionally writes articles more favourable to him than the rest of the paper is. Mr Major himself now seems to have decided that he will win or lose the next election without the assistance of his good friends from the press.