When journalists decide to get political

Members of the Parliamentary Lobby, unlike foreign and defence correspondents, rarely put themselves in physical danger, unless you count alcohol abuse and the odd threat from a disgruntled MP or minister.

Many of our critics believe, in fact, that we are part of the establishment – living in a cosy world at the Westminster village, in cahoots with crooked MPs and dissembling ministers.

It’s easy to see why this ill-judged image is formed. After all, we drink with MPs, eat with them, very occasionally sleep with them, and even become them. Many a Lobby correspondent has ‘gone over to the other side’and sought out a political career.

But there has to be a ‘special relationship’between MPs, ministers and political journalists. They need us (for publicity), and we need them (for stories).

That is not to say that this relationship should be too close. Inevitably friendships (and the opposite) are formed when individuals work cheek by jowl with each other, but basically the lobby journalist’s job is to be the public’s representative in Westminster and Whitehall.

I worked for many years in the same room as the late Gordon Greig, a brilliant analyst of the political scene with a twinkle in his eye. The late Tony Bevins was terrier-like in his pursuit of ministers and whoever happened to be the Prime Minister’s spokesman of the day.

The Press Association’s Chris Moncrieff is trusted by ministers, Shadow ministers and MPs from all parties, but he’s also their sternest critic if they do anything daft or against the public interest.

There are currently 175 Lobby passholders, although a smaller number regularly attend the twice-daily briefings by the Prime Minister’s press secretary, and fewer still are seen loitering in the Members’ Lobby in the Commons, the place where MPs and ministers chatted to reporters ‘on Lobby terms”, that is, unattributably.

Nowadays it’s more common for meetings to take place over lunch, in a quiet corridor, or in Strangers Bar, the MPs’ favourite watering hole.

Lobby chairman Benedict Brogan expertly summed up the qualities he believes are needed to work as a journalist in politics:

‘There is no single quality that defines a successful Lobby journalist. But the job can’t be done without a passion for politics, a sense of mischief, a degree of scepticism, an appetite for gossip, a strong digestion, a broad brush, a lie detector, an appreciation of history, a love of the Commons and a certain fondness for the people who work in the Palace of Westminster.”

That just about says it all.

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