Parliament’s Press Poodles

Our Mole says the lobby is a male club where tough questions go unasked and big stories go unreported

Media The Mole UK Politics Westminster

At the press conference in the Downing Street garden called to herald the new era of coalition government, David Cameron promised a “seismic shift” in British politics to take Britain in “a historic new direction”. He and his deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, then paused to take questions from Channel 4’s Gary Gibbon, the BBC’s Nick Robinson, Sky’s Adam Boulton, Channel 4’s Jon Snow, ITV’s Tom Bradby and Five’s Andy Bell. 

There may be a new politics, but Cameron and Clegg had quickly learned the rules of the old lobby. There is a convention at Prime Ministerial press conferences that the political editors of the big broadcasters sit across the front row like class goodie-goodies and get to ask the first questions. The exchanges that follow are usually a pretty gentle affair, with the main function of providing the necessary clips for the evening news. In terms of newsgathering they are a largely pointless exercise that rarely produce a story, do little to hold the PM to account and rather amplify the idea that the lobby, a rather cosy private gentleman’s club, still has a stranglehold on the political class.

Cameron will quickly learn that such interventions from the big boys (and they are all boys) can be extremely useful. They use up valuable time that might be found for more uncomfortable questions, at the same time as giving an impression that the executive is being held to account. In reality, there is nothing more symbolic of the sterile and incestuous nature of modern political discourse than this parody of democratic openness.

On the first day of the bright new Liberal-Conservative dawn, despite the gravity of the economic situation and the sensitivity of the constitutional position, the most difficult question was whether Cameron had once described Clegg as his favourite joke. The subjects from my esteemed colleagues ranged from the details of the office arrangements in Downing Street under a coalition to the choreography of future Clegg-Cameron public appearances.

As the overhead camera panned back across a sea of suits, it did not feel like an historic watershed. As we waited for the two public school chums to address us, it was hard to believe we had reached the 21st century. (And this was before the full Cabinet had been revealed.)

The unspoken convention that the broadcasters get “first dibs” on questions is just one of many lobby traditions respected by politicians and hacks for no good reason other than this is how things have always been done. There have been glimpses of reform. It is good, for example, that lobby correspondents who had not kept their register of interests up to date were recently given a slap on the wrist. Briefings to the lobby are no longer unattributable. We are now permitted to say that these are given by the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman and it is possible to identify who that person is (currently Stephen Field, a career civil servant who was previously communications chief at the Treasury). But lobby journalists continue to lunch MPs in the traditional manner (often two hacks from different newspapers per politician) in return for stories. The offices of the press gallery itself, physically embedded at the heart of parliament, reinforce the sense that journalists are umbilically connected to the institution. The effect is to lock reporters in to the political culture of the Commons.

Is there any evidence that a different arrangement would produce better political coverage? It is certainly possible to argue that the best political coverage of the 2010 election did not come from the men in suits, but from the lobby’s tiny band of women: Allegra Stratton at the Guardian and Cathy Newman at Channel 4 were outstanding. Rosa Prince at the Telegraph, Marie Woolf at the Sunday Times and Melissa Kite at the Sunday Telegraph have also established themselves as respected figures and the Observer‘s Anushka Asthana got off to a flying start during her first election in the lobby. For some time, Ann Treneman, at The Times, has been the best parliamentary sketch writer. 

But the real star of the election came from outside the lobby altogether. The Guardian‘s Marina Hyde, sometime sports writer, sometime showbiz columnist, has shown how it should be done. Her piece on the “spin room” at the Sky leaders’ debate, “The Live Abortion of Democracy”, was a merciless dissection of the relationship between politicians, their spinners and the media and, at the same time, a masterclass in how political journalism could be done. Her observation of the spin room could equally apply to the lobby: “A…type of self-regard is abroad in the spin room, people appearing to feel personally validated to be there, and firmly under the illusion that the public would kill to get a look in. In fact, the public would kill if they got a look in, which is something altogether different.”

Why does any of this matter, beyond the point that it can’t be healthy that the lobby is even less representative of the ethnic, class and gender breakdown of wider society than parliament itself?

It is necessary only to point out the two biggest stories of recent political history. Both were missed by a lazy and mediocre lobby grown complacent in its proximity to power. The first was the expenses scandal, dismissed for years as irrelevant by the very journalists who are paid to bring this sort of abuse to public attention. It took the persistence of the Anglo-American investigative journalist Heather Brooke — such an outsider that she is not even employed by a national newspaper — to bring the whole sorry affair to light. The lobby only climbed on board when it would have been an embarrassment not to do so: a consistent strategy of this over-cautious, back-watching category of hack.

The second story missed by the lobby is the rise of the Lib Dems. There really is no excuse. Its vote has been rising steadily now for over a decade. If the lobby had spent any time talking to local politicians they would have known that we have been living in a three-party system for years now. But until the first debate of this election it was still the reflex of lobby hacks to throw every Lib Dem press release in the bin and delete every email from its HQ on Cowley Street. Maybe the rising yellow tide was so slow and inexorable that, like coastal erosion, we didn’t see it coming until it was too late.

Attempts to fix the broken lobby system have always been doomed to failure. But it should no longer be acceptable for this select band of journalists to operate as a de facto arm of the Westminster machine. 

The blogger Paul Staines (Guido Fawkes) and independent voices such as Heather Brooke have shown that it is quite possible to break stories from outside the system. Antony Barnett’s recent Dispatches for Channel 4 did more in one hour to demonstrate the venality of MPs than the lobby has done in a generation.

As Clegg begins his time as constitutional-reformer-in-chief for the new government, there should be a parallel investigation into the operation of the lobby. Here I have a practical suggestion. A team led by Heather Brooke, with Staines and Barnett as her deputies, would make a formidable hit squad.