Thursday, 31 May 2007

Out of the Lobby?

SKY Political Editor Adam Boulton has kept a diary of his week for the UKPG online
In it, an intriguing defence of the Lobby. He would, obviously, defend it since he’s been a member for 25 years and is this year’s chairman.

He writes:
“In spite of its sinister reputation, the Lobby is not an old boys’ network in
which politicians and hacks conspire to “keep it under their hats”. We rarely
hear secrets and, if we do, the public is informed pretty soon afterwards.”
But that misses the point. The real concern non-journalists have about the Lobby isn’t that it’s an ‘old boys’ network’ – though that’s exactly what it is (with the 21st century substitution of ‘boys and girls’ for just ‘boys’).

Nor that its members conspire with politicians to keep things “under their hats” – journalistic competition, the proliferation of news sources, the pressures of a 24 hour news cycle and politicians’ annoying tendency to speak to journalists outside the Lobby mean that that particular cosiness is no longer sustainable. Though cosy the relationship certainly remains.

There are two main reasons ordinary voters – or at least those who take any interest at all in national politics – find the Lobby system wanting.

First, that even with developments such as the PM’s monthly on-camera newsconferences and attributions to PMOS, the Lobby remains an interpretive animal. We were not there, we cannot tell how well the Lobby journalist has done his/her job.

To use Onora O’Neill’s Reith Lecture formula, Lobby reporting is a form of non-assessable communication … and the drift is very definitely in the direction of preferring the assessable. Joe and Jane Voter want to see/hear for themselves.

Second, the Lobby is the embodiment of Westminster’s inaccessiblity to the ordinary voter. Six hundred years ago, when they used to burn heretics and witches, the clergy opposed the translation of the Bible from Latin (which priests had to gloss and interpret) into English (which the laity could read and understand for itself). The Lobby is as reluctant now to let go of its role as the – metaphorical – denouncer of heretics and burner of witches.

The formula: “the minster said this … but what he really meant was this …” is such a familiar formula in political coverage, we journalists don’t even question it. Nor have we questioned sufficiently often and self-critically what it’s done to the concept of political truth-telling.

The sense that national politics is another world conducting its business in an alien tongue with a mendacious vocabulary is one of the (many) reasons why potential voters remain just that. Potential and not actual.

Adam’s defence continues:
“In practice, it is the main interface between political journalists, the
Government and parliamentary institutions.”
Really? I have no numbers on this but I suspect the average voter’s knowledge of what politicians are doing in his/her name derives more from interviews (press as well as broadcasting), speeches, appearances, articles written by politicians themselves and non-Lobby journalists than it does from the Lobby.

Direct, unmediated and assessable communication ought to be a good thing … except that it’s routinely glossed by Lobby journalists with the confident nose-tap of one-who-really-knows.

The reality is, the clarity of an interview on Andrew Marr’s show or The World at One is subsequently fuzzed by the Lobby journalist’s translation – a translation as often as not ‘tweaked’ after a quiet word with a special advisor.

Adam notes that political bloggers Iain Dale (**update - Iain Dale denies he wants admission to the Lobby; see his comment **) and Guido Fawkes, among others, now want admission to the Lobby. But, he asks:
“Do they want to operate as journalists or gossip columnists?”
Good question – I wonder whether Lobby journalists ever ask it of themselves.


Iain Dale said...

Kevin, can I just make clear that I do not wish to have a lobby pass. Adam is wrong on that. 18 Doughty Street wishes to appoint a political correspondent and they would require one, but I have no desire for a lobby pass myself!

Kevin Marsh said...

Thanks, Iain.

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