Campbell: opening up briefings
Downing Street is being asked to allow the lobby chairman to co-chair press conferences to ensure journalists get a fair opportunity to question Government policy.
Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister’s director of communications, has imposed the death sentence for the lobby system by announcing that morning briefings will be opened up to all journalists and not just confined to the 150 Westminster-based political correspondents.
The move has sparked concern that Downing Street wants to discourage political reporters from asking politically embarrassing questions and ensuring media attention is devoted to government statements instead.
The move will mean moving morning briefings, which since Blair moved into Downing Street have been on the record, to new and larger premises.
Afternoon meetings in the lobby room in Parliament will still be confined to members of the lobby.
Downing Street was forced prematurely into making its plans public after Times deputy political editor Tom Baldwin got wind of what was afoot.
Blair had aired Downing Street’s plans at a Chequers get-together with political editors Andrew Marr of the BBC, ITN’s John Sergeant, Sky News’s Adam Boulton and Elinor Goodman of Channel 4 News.
But when Campbell heard that The Times planned to break its scoop, he summoned lobby chairman James Hardy, the Daily Mirror’s political editor, and other senior lobby members to inform them of the decision.
In a bid to reach a compromise, Hardy is now exploring with Campbell the idea that he should co-chair the new sessions.
Campbell himself came up with the suggestion but has since attempted to row back by insisting that the Prime Minister, or other Cabinet ministers, should chair meetings alone when they, rather than an official, are put up to answer questions.
Hardy told Press Gazette that lobby journalists had no problem with sharing meetings with other journalists.
"The risk is that it will let the Government off the hook. I have written to Mr Campbell saying we appreciate his offer to allow the lobby chair to co-chair meetings."
Downing Street has already virtually ended regular weekly briefings with Sunday newspaper political journalists.
Now regional political journalists are also concerned the changes could make it harder for them to meet their earlier deadlines.
Express & Star political editor John Hipwood, a former lobby chairman, said: "Access to ministers is important but we need information as quickly and succinctly as possible, not a long diatribe on what No.10 considers to be its story of the day."
By David Rose