Imagine a secretive organisation whose members have privileged access to Downing Street. Imagine that the members of this organisation receive information covertly. Imagine that the rules of this organisation force the members to withhold information from outsiders if the Prime Minister tells them so to do. Then consider that the members of this closed, opaque, secretive organisation are supposed to hold politicians to account on behalf of the public. After 208 years it is time to end the Lobby system.
The gentlemen of the Lobby drink in subsidised bars, from which the public are excluded, with the politicians they are supposed to hold to account on behalf of that same public. Cowardice and cronyism runs right through the Lobby because they are fearful of being taken off the teat of pre-packaged stories served to them. That is not journalism, that is copy-taking, this blog was established in part because Guido believes the Lobby system fails the public. The Fourth Estate may not have a formal constitutional role, but the role is real. The role is not to produce “client journalism”.
Peter Oborne in his brilliant Triumph of the Political Class characterises the Lobby system as having produced a tame “client media”. He is absolutely right, the Lobby is far too cosily embedded in the politico-media system, far too close to their subjects, with the likes of Nick Robinson flashing his taxpayer-financed credit card to pour the better vintages down the throats of ministers who have their lunch on the BBC telly-taxpayers. The same ministers who had their expensed groceries sent to their mortgage subsidised home at the taxpayers’ expense. The system stinks, those who are supposed to be watching over politicians – journalists – and the politicians themselves, are the only ones who benefit from the system staying the same.
Two years ago the then PMOS, Simon Lewis, and the then chairman of the Lobby, Jean Eaglesham, announced that the system of Downing Street Lobby briefings was to be reviewed “in light of the changes in the reporting of the work of government in an increasingly fast-moving and on-line media world”. A working group of six lobby hacks and five government spin doctors was to come up with recommendations to be implemented last year. No one from the fast-moving online media world was on the working group. Did anything change? No.
Tom Watson has just called for an end to the Lobby system and off the record briefings. Cameron has said he supports all contacts between politicians and newspaper executives being a matter of public record. More transparency is clearly a good thing. That transparency should be applied to the Lobby system…
See also: In 2007 Guido filmed this polemic against the Lobby system for Newsnight: