The editor of the Guardian, Peter Preston, recently issued a much publicised (especially in the Guardian) challenge to the lobby system of briefing journalists. In a letter to the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary, Bernard Ingham, he stated that it was his intention that, when Parliament recommences after MPs’ summer holidays, journalists working for the Guardian would be instructed to identify the source of information given to them at daily lobby briefings. What is the significance of this proposed change? Will it herald a new era of freedom of information and so enhance democracy?
The Lobby (short for Parliamentary Lobby journalists) is an exclusive “club” of around 150 accredited journalists who, in return for an agreement to abide by the Lobby’s own self-imposed rules, are allowed to attend daily press briefings to which government and opposition spokespersons are “invited”. These briefings are one of the main sources of information about government and politics in this country. Defenders of the system claim that the Lobby contributes to the flow of information between rulers and the ruled, since politicians feel able to speak freely because they are confident that the Lobby journalists will stick to their own code of conduct and treat everything said at Lobby briefings as “off-the-record” and not reveal the source of their information.
The system has clear advantages for the government. First it means that the political agenda and the flow of information out of Westminster can be effectively controlled. Lobby journalists are fed selected morsels which, it is hoped, will stave off the hunger pangs which might tempt them to go out in search of juicier delicacies in hunting grounds which the government would prefer to keep strictly out of bounds. Secondly, because information thus received is “non-attributable’, then politicians can simply deny ever having made a statement that later proves to be too embarrassing or contentious. In other words they can say pretty much what they like without fear of redress and without having to justify themselves.
But the Lobby system has also proved advantageous to journalists who, because of their exclusive access to official information, have managed to retain a virtual monopoly on political news. But that monopoly has been purchased at a cost — the cost of adhering to an out dated set of rules and restrictive practices which compromise them as journalists by forcing them to accept what little information they are offered instead of seeking out what is really happening in the closed world of British politics.
Many newspapers and journalists have clearly felt that this is not an unreasonable price to pay for a staple, if bland, diet of political information. The cost to the rest of us has been much higher. The lack of penetrating and critical political journalism has meant that we have been stuffed full of rumours, half-truths and misinformation designed to show us what a good job politicians are doing running capitalism. The only time that shining image is tarnished is when a member of the government or opposition breaks ranks (usually for opportunistic reasons) and gives the Lobby a different story which they then dutifully pass on to us.
If the Guardian’s challenge to the Lobby system is successful and the rules are changed, can we then expect a substantial improvement in the quantity and quality of political news? The most likely outcome if the Lobby agrees to a new system (and that is by no means certain) is that the daily non- attributable press briefings will be replaced by attributable briefings. Journalists will then be allowed to identify their sources and quote them directly. In other words we would end up with a system similar to that which operates in the United States, where White House spokespersons hold press conferences, on the record, to inform journalists of official thinking on the issues of the day.
Some defenders of the Lobby system argue that such attributable press briefings would result in the press being given less, rather than more, information. If they knew that they would be identified and quoted directly, it is claimed, officials would be forced to pick their words more carefully and this could only have an adverse effect on the atmosphere of frankness which is said to prevail at Lobby briefings. More cynical observers might argue that it will only mean that Bernard Ingham will not be at liberty to refer to Francis Pym as “Mona Lott” or John Biffen as a “semi-detached member of the government”.
The Lobby system is just one small brick in the wall of secrecy protecting politicians’ and civil servants’ actions from the public gaze. British government is closed government, protected by the Official Secrets Act and the general obsession with secrecy that infects both Whitehall and Westminster. The public have no “right” to know what politicians do, or how they make their decisions nor, in many cases, what issues are being discussed and by whom. Newspapers contribute to this lack of information not only because of their collusion in the Lobby but because, as capitalist enterprises, they are owned or controlled by members of the same class whose interests are protected by the government. Many journalists themselves often share the same attitudes, values and assumptions that are held by the ruling class, are deferential to the wealthy and powerful and are unlikely to risk their careers by rocking the boat.
The Guardian’s attempt to remove that one brick from the wall of secrecy may briefly open up a chink of light on the closed world of the ruling class. But so long as the rest of the wall remains intact, then it is highly unlikely that we will be better informed politically just because we know that “sources close to the Prime Minister” is really Bernard Ingham.