Lobby correspondents have reacted furiously to an email from Press Association managing editor Gavin Bargate encouraging regional newspaper editors to replace them with the agency's Lobby Extra service for a "fraction of the cost".
Bargate, who sent out separate emails to regional editors across the country, said in one email leaked to Press Gazette: "Forgive this gentle sales pitch. Our records show that you carry coverage from Parliament from your own reporter or correspondent. Are you aware that our Lobby Extra team can provide a tailored service from Westminster — which is the equivalent of having your own staffer in the Lobby — for a fraction of the cost?"
On receiving the email from Bargate, Eastern Daily Press editor Peter Franzen fired off a reply criticising his methods. Franzen told Press Gazette: "It seems like PA are trying to put Lobby correspondents out of business. They seem to have a very blinkered view of what a Lobby correspondent actually does. As far as I'm concerned, it's a branch office of the Eastern Daily Press — my correspondent writes leaders, round-ups and regional analysis of national stories.
"Just to provide a Lobby service these days is not cost-effective, but as far as I'm concerned, they do all sorts of stuff that PA could never do. My Lobby correspondent has just done an interview with the transport minister about specific problems with transport links in Norfolk."
He added: "It's not just exclusive material — it's about building up a good personal relationship with our local MPs, and I don't think that relationship can be built up by a generic PA correspondent who is going to be all things to all men."
Franzen's Westminster correspondent Chris Fisher said: "I'm not happy Mr Bargate is sending such emails around, suggesting people such as me should be fired. Perhaps I might like to send an email to someone suggesting he might be fired."
PA has a team of fewer than 10 Lobby Extra journalists who provide a service to nearly 20 customers. There are currently 23 regional newspaper staff reporters based in Westminster covering Parliament.
Bargate told Press Gazette: "For several years, PA has run a very successful service, recently rebranded as Lobby Extra, which provides tailored news stories from Westminster to regional newspapers and other publications. Two more major newspapers recently opted to take the service.
"In response to requests from the industry, it is normal practice for PA from time to time to alert our customers to the specialist services we offer that may be of benefit to them. There is clearly no obligation to take these services, and editors will make the final decisions in the best interests of their papers."
But current and former Lobby correspondents have expressed outrage. London editor of the Express & Star and Shropshire Star John Hipwood said: "Times are hard and all regional newspapers need to look closely at their costs. But you do not improve the situation by removing your own Lobby correspondent, making do with an inferior alternative and thereby reducing the quality of your product.
"Mr Bargate appears to be trying to drum up business by urging editors to jettison their own staff. Whether he considers that an ethical way of doing business is a matter for him," he added.
London-based political editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post, Lancashire Evening Post and the Sheffield Star, Anne Alexander, said: "You can understand why regional Lobby journalists in Parliament, who work extremely hard and very long hours for not a great deal of pay, are put out at this brazen attempt to bounce them out of their jobs."
A former Lobby journalist for a major regional group said: "PA reports what MPs say. But a good regional Lobby journalist builds up contacts with all the local MPs.
"Lobby correspondents have a pro-active role in getting together with MPs and working up stories. They also write features and leaders, which PA cannot do."
The NUJ, which is not recognised by PA, described the move as "an attack on the diversity of journalism.”