Francis Elliott

The dangers of televising lobby briefings

The dangers of televising lobby briefings
Text settings

Like a tongue searching for an absent tooth, I keep wondering if I’m missing anything from my two decades as a lobby hack. Friends, of course, and perhaps the vast, grey field of sloping slate as seen from the Times’s parliamentary office. That empty and silent space, the roof of Westminster Hall, seemed austere and indifferent, a mental refuge from the babble beneath and within. The opposite aspect, towards the crumbling guts of the Palace of Westminster, elicits more complicated memories.

I arrived in the press gallery aged 30 to take a job as Westminster correspondent for a clutch of provincial papers. On my first day my new colleagues took me to tea at 4 p.m. in the dining room. There was also a bar with its own barflies and a barman named Clive.

It was 1998 and the lobby was gearing up for a fight with an aggressive Downing Street. Soon there were rumours that No. 10 wanted to televise the daily briefings. Which is to say there is nothing new in SW1 — but everything grows older.

The lobby, a collective name for journalists accredited to report from parliament, attracts criticism, a lot of it nutty. It is said, sometimes simultaneously, to be too cosy and too confrontational. Given the complexity of its ecosystem, from the client-journalists wafting gently about their hosts to bull sharks on relentless patrol, it’s hard to make general criticism stick.

Hard but not impossible — and if the latest attempts to televise the daily press briefings actually come to fruition there is danger all around. The current off-camera sessions are on most days a joyless dance that fails to build even to an anti-climax. Bring in cameras, and the patient probing that winkles out news won’t be clipped for social media: the ‘car crash’ moments — on both sides — most definitely shall. The broadcasters will have to ask the ‘question of the day’ for their packages (although must each ask the same question?) and those with a print deadline will have to think of how to move the story on and search every rabbit hole, no matter how tedious. Through it all, Downing Street will say what it has to say. And say it again.

It will be grimly fascinating to see which jars more with viewers: the stonewalling by No. 10, or the ridiculous peacocking of some hacks. Some lobby journalists are looking forward to the exposure, unbothered about how they might be perceived by a general public. Little thought has been given to the fact that political journalists, as a group, don’t look much like the rest of the country. In fact they have grown less representative, in terms of social background, over the past 50 years, as is clear from The Westminster Lobby Correspondents, Jeremy Tunstall’s ‘sociological study of national political journalism’.

Much of this wonderful book remains as true today as when it was published in 1970. His portrait of ‘lobby man’ as a ‘self--contained and unbohemian’ suburbanite whose friends are mostly other journalists who complain they can’t make evening plans but ‘exhibit somewhat obsessional interest’ in their work is wincingly accurate. And yet it is striking to learn that then just a quarter of the lobby had been university-educated.

The 2008/09 parliamentary expenses scandal showed a political class that had forgotten to care how its internal workings looked to the outside world. But that fierce shaming has made it harder to arrest a slide in status, as manifested by a building falling apart. There is a strange fatalism that comes from working in a physical metaphor for decline. Tunstall, good on the conditioning effects of the ‘squalid’ building on the institution, would recognise the state of the gents’ lavatories. In a bank of basins and taps as old as Pugin himself, one plughole is almost permanently blocked. It is hard to say which of the urinals leaks, possibly all of them. The point is that they were leaking when I arrived 23 years ago and very probably long before that, and have leaked more or less ever since.

‘The simplest way to produce a change in the lobby system might be to drop some bombs on the Houses of Parliament,’ Tunstall notes. While I have often thought that a victimless accident that flattened the place might not be the worst way to rescue the Westminster system, there may yet still be a less drastic solution. The lobby has shown its mettle recently. It won the ‘battle of the carpet’ when journalists, lined up on either side of No. 10’s hall according to whether they had been invited to a selective briefing, walked out en masse in protest. It was a great act of solidarity that put paid to an attempt to undermine its power as a collective. It needs to summon that spirit again and welcome what the new scrutiny will bring.