If lobby journalism didn’t exist, would we invent it?
Anyone who has had to explain to someone outside the Westminster bubble how political journalism works will have asked themselves that question.
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After all, the image of a group of reporters handpicked by their editors to work from the Houses of Parliament, develop a close relationship with the MPs they’re meant to scrutinise, and have access to private briefings from 10 Downing Street twice a day doesn’t feel like Fleet Street at its finest.
That isn’t a criticism of individual journalists – many have been the finest in the trade – but the institution they’re part of needs to go.
Take the allegations of groupthink: lobby journalists are often criticised for appearing to have a collective line on the news of the day. Of course, they don’t literally get together to agree on an angle, but then that’s not how groupthink works.
If you spend every day of every week working alongside the same few people, you will end up, by osmosis, finding the same stories interesting and sharing the same gossip.
And the Lobby briefings themselves impede plurality of thought. Even if a reporter goes to the meeting with one story in mind, they hear what the other hacks are writing about, and what angle they’re planning to go with. Consciously or not, this is bound to influence coverage.
This happened last year with the mass coverage of Henry Bolton’s sex life. While hacks were having a tremendous amount of fun reporting on whether the Ukip leader was still sleeping with a 25-year-old, was it really the sort of story that deserved to be in the news for days on end?
On the flipside is Jeremy Corbyn’s surprisingly good showing in the general election last year: though polls can certainly be unpredictable, shouldn’t the lobby have seen it coming?
Then there is the problem with the very location of the lobby. Sticking journalists in the heart of Parliament is good for access, but it encourages a focus on the day-to-day tit-for-tat, without keeping the bigger picture in mind.
And effectively sharing an (admittedly grand) office with the people they write about can’t be healthy. It’s natural that good working relationships occasionally turn into friendships, but political journalists being seen as too close to MPs doesn’t reflect well on either side.
Last but not least comes the us versus them mentality. If you make a select number of people join an exclusive, clubby group of journalists, they will invariably end up turning into an elite.
This is a gift to those opposed to a free press and partial to a conspiracy theory or two – the workings of the lobby can be so opaque that it’s easy to turn them into the sinister plots of malevolent figures. Take a look at the Canary, or the many blog posts published by fringe figures via Twitter.
The lobby is as the lobby does: if you question its practices publicly, you’re only confirming your status as one of the plebs.
This is unhelpful, especially at a time when fake news is rising, trust in institutions is falling, and the political discourse is getting angrier and ever more partisan.
Great political journalism is needed now more than ever, and a conversation on how to make it as effective and rigorous as possible shouldn’t be ducked for fear of upsetting the sensibilities of those already in the job.
If the lobby isn’t willing to stop and have a think about its structural failings, it might be time to rip it up and start again.
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