Features

From feral beasts to pussycats

A Lobby made man on the decline of the parliamentary press from feared newsbreakers to humdrum hacks

In June 2007, his premiership fading to black, Tony Blair went public with years of frustration at newspapers and their coverage of politics, by which he largely meant him and his government. Periodically, he said, the papers formed a pack intent on destroying a politician or organisation. “In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits, but no one dares miss out,” he said. 

This speech was reported by the very people Blair was talking about and criticising: political correspondents, the ladies and gentlemen of the Lobby. And we loved it. 

Blair meant the speech as condemnation, but the Lobby was delighted, for several reasons. First, “feral beast” was a good line, the sort that makes front pages — as so often, Blair had provided good copy, getting attention for himself and, as a by-product, for those reporting him. 

The second delight was that the speech revealed that we’d actually got to Blair, rattled and even wounded him. My Lobby career began in Blair’s very early days and I shudder to think of how many hours we put into trying to unnerve or trouble him, to no effect whatever. The cleverest question, the most incendiary headline — nothing ever seemed to worry the man. Yet here he was, admitting that we scared and scarred him. 

And that was the third pleasure in that speech, the deepest truth. It said we mattered, that we had power. When even the dominant politician of his generation calls you a fierce creature he cannot control, you know you’re relevant. The Lobby wore Blair’s parting shot with pride. Quite literally: some wag had “Feral Beast” badges made to pass out among Lobby colleagues. I still have mine somewhere. 

I wouldn’t dream of wearing it now though, and not just because so few people would remember the phrase. These days the joke is on the Lobby, a timid, limping animal that inspires little fear among those who used to court us. The beast that clawed Blair is now routinely kicked around by Boris Johnson and his team. Shortly after New Year, No 10 made an imperious announcement that it was moving its morning briefings with Lobby correspondents from the House of Commons to Downing Street. The impotent howls of rage from the journalists so afflicted tell a sad story about power and its loss.

Lobby journalists get their name from the Members’ Lobby of the House of Commons. The only people who may enter and stand there are MPs, Commons staff, and those journalists allowed privileged access to Parliament and its members. Anything said by an MP to a journalist in that chamber is “on Lobby terms” — the MP cannot be identified in subsequent reporting. 

In reality, the term has changed and precious few Lobby hacks now enter the Lobby seeking gossip and intelligence; the coffee bars of Portcullis House are a more comfortable place to natter, and even that has largely given way to WhatsApp or (for the very cautious) Signal, whereby politicos can safely feed lines to hacks discreetly and distantly. 

A more accurate contemporary definition of the Lobby is those political reporters, from papers, websites and broadcasters, who attend regular briefings with the prime minister’s official spokesman. His name is James Slack, a former Daily Mail political editor now employed as a civil servant to feed his former colleagues such crumbs of information as No 10 considers necessary. 

Once the lobby were the gatekeepers, now they churn out “content” like ordinary desk hacks

Before Blair, such briefings were a faintly clandestine business. Lobby journalists could report the essence of what they were told, but there could be no quoting and absolutely no suggestion of an official statement from No 10. Blair, or rather, Alastair Campbell (another former Lobby hack turned press officer) shook things up a bit, putting twice-daily briefings on the record in 1997 and, for a while, delivering the briefings himself. Half of those briefings, the ones in the mornings, he conducted in Downing Street, in a slightly dank basement well away from the state rooms upstairs. In the afternoons, the No 10 press team would meet the Lobby on home ground, in a room high up in the Palace of Westminster that is also reputed to be the meeting place for the local Masonic Lodge.

Why would one of the prime minister’s most senior staff spend so much time sparring with newspaper reporters? For all Campbell’s professed contempt for his old comrades, it was because the Lobby mattered, really mattered to Blair. His team obsessed, to an unhealthy extent, about the smallest details of newspaper coverage. 

Did the quote from an unnamed minister about Blair and Carole Caplin on page six of that morning’s Mail really decide the fate of nations or justify the volleys of abuse Campbell dished out over such things? Probably not, but the fury pointed to a deeper truth, that the way the papers covered things could actually make a difference to politics. That even a prime minister with a Commons majority visible from space and the self-belief of a minor deity had to acknowledge that some other people — some journalists — had power he must reckon with. Ultimately, we enjoyed Campbell’s bollockings, because they confirmed that what we did and said counted for something.

Not that Campbell didn’t try to change things. In 2002, he pushed to reform the Lobby further. Instead of the No 10 basement, we were forced to trudge across St James Park to a rented room on Carlton House Terrace. Cue much semi-ironic grievance: “I didn’t come into journalism to walk in the rain,” etc. The briefings held there would be open to Other Journalists. The foreign press were invited. 

Worse, our specialist colleagues, the education, health or home affairs correspondents were supposed to attend, to bring their so-called expertise to bear on presentations by senior ministers and officials on matters of detailed policy. There was much chatter that this was all a prelude to Campbell pushing the nuclear button and televising the briefings. 

The lobby has always opposed letting cameras into the briefing, supposedly because we think it would turn the exchanges into shallow grandstanding like you used to see from Washington. In reality it’s because the off-camera No 10 briefings are one of the few things that newspapers have that broadcasters haven’t captured.

In the end, Campbell-Blair bottled it. The Carlton House terrace briefings proved to be a disaster that generated only negative coverage as ministers and officials were duly savaged by the pack. Morning Lobby briefings, delivered by earnest and anonymous civil servants, moved to the Treasury, then that semi-secret Commons room. 

Campbell’s successor, Damian McBride, preferred to drink with amenable Lobby hacks rather than yell at us. McBride and his boss Gordon Brown had no illusions about caging the feral beast. Instead, they fed it and hoped it would bite someone else instead. To a hack, few things taste as sweet as the hand that once fed you. 

David Cameron talked a good fight about defying the Lobby before he took office, promising he would end the Blair-Brown fixation on day-to-day coverage. That, of course, was worth about as much as the rest of his cast-iron promises and life for the Lobby continued largely unchanged during his time. 

The tragi-comedy of Theresa May changed everything and nothing about relations between the Lobby and the government. The briefings continued much as before but everyone knew they didn’t really matter. The official spokesman had nothing to say about what the PM was doing or thinking, because she wasn’t doing or thinking anything, and even if she was she wouldn’t have told her spokesman, or anyone else. Nor would it have made any difference to anyone if she had. 

Yes, some of us had “online” versions of our papers to serve, but that wasn’t proper journalism

News didn’t come from No 10, it came from anywhere but: ministers, spads, backbenchers and Brussels were all better uses of a hack’s time than Downing Street. 

And while all this was going on, as Blair swanned off, Brown raged, Cameron smarmed and May calcified, things were changing outside that turretted briefing room above the Thames, changing in ways that would transform the position and nature of the Lobby. 

When Blair made his speech at Reuters HQ in London, no one had an iPhone and only a few of us from bigger media organisations had Blackberries that would have allowed us to file from the room. But we didn’t, because what was the rush? Yes, some of us had “online” versions of our papers to serve, but that wasn’t proper journalism. What mattered was the copy we’d file when we got back to our offices on the press gallery in the Commons (then still served by its own bar and restaurant). After all, the way we interpreted and framed that speech would shape the way the punters saw it, either because they read our copy or because they heard a BBC report consciously premised on our reporting. Tweeting was what birds did. 

And now? Now you file early and often, because online needs something new, now. Not that anything there is really new, since it was all on Twitter half an hour ago. Is there anything more demeaning than senior Lobby journalists haggling with No 10 “sources” after the morning briefing about precisely when and how they can all, in unison, tweet about some minutiae of government business? Political editors whose greybeard predecessors treated cabinet ministers like social inferiors now beg for scraps from minor officials. 

Newsdesks watch the same Twitter feeds we do, looking for stories at source rather than relying on us to reveal and explain, and looking for stories that others have and we don’t. And no, it doesn’t matter if those stories are purest cobblers knowingly spun by Downing Street to the gullible: if it’s on Robert Peston’s blog, there must be something in it, right?

Once, the lobby were the gatekeepers, holders of secret knowledge that made them indispensable to their papers and gave them and their stories power to shape the way the country saw its leaders. Now they churn out “content” like ordinary desk hacks, spaff their few original insights up the Twitter wall, and can’t understand why No 10 thinks they’re largely irrelevant. 

And what about the job, the life? Remember that scene in Goodfellas when Ray Liotta is talking about how great it was to be a hood (“If we wanted something we just took it”)? Well, 20 years ago, a political editor at Westminster was still a capo and his reporters were made guys. We started late, walked the Palace as if we owned it, lunched till 3pm, then popped by the afternoon Lobby to agree the line before calling the desk to tell them what the stories were and when we’d file them. Then we went to our own bar (“The usual, Clive, two receipts”) to sharpen up for another night drinking with MPs or spads, or dining with ministers who all gave us stories because they wanted a good write-up. If we wanted something, we just expensed it. Because we knew where the news came from, and only we could go there and bring it back.

 Now? Goodfellas ends with Ray Liotta looking back on what used to be: “We were treated like movie stars with muscle. We had it all, just for the asking. Everything was for the taking. And now it’s all over. And that’s the hardest part. Today, everything is different. There’s no action. I have to wait around like everyone else. Can’t even get decent food. I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”

Feral beasts can scare people and to tell them what to do. Schnooks get pushed around, or ignored.

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