OPINION: Credit to Campbell for changes to lobby system

Three cheers for Alastair Campbell - well, two at least. His decision to abolish the morning lobby briefings in Downing Street ended the most corrupt practice in British journalism.

This was a system abused by the journalists as much as governments. The fact is that the lobby suited the hacks who didn't have to do any work to get their stories and were always tipped of by other hacks if they had missed anything. It also suited the government because it could easily manipulate the news agenda by dropping big stories at a time of its choosing.

In the old days the system was even worse and fell into such disrepute that some of the more honest papers boycotted the whole charade.

That was largely as a result of briefings being 'unattributable', a fact exploited by Margaret Thatcher's spin doctor, who famously referred to then Cabinet minister John Biffen as being 'semi-detached'. If Mo Mowlam thinks she was badly treated by the Downing Street press machine then she should have been around in earlier days.

I've only given Campbell two cheers because apparently the afternoon spoon-feeding session of the lobby is to continue. This is where the hacks invite the Government's main spokesman to visit them in an attic room in the Palace of Westminster. If I were Campbell, I would simply decline their invitations, leaving them to find their own stories or do what they do best - make them up.

Their job would be a lot more difficult if the journalists weren't all housed in the press gallery. For those who haven't visited the place but are familiar with the workings of a boys' public school then you will get the picture. I say boys because that's mostly what it is. It is only in recent years that women hacks have been allowed to wear trousers! You can even buy a 'lobby tie' and if you become chairman of the press gallery you get your name printed on one of those wooden boards that adorn snooty golf clubs - no woman has yet made it. They don't actually have elections for the post - the winner just 'emerges'.

The Government has recently spent millions of pounds building new offices for MPs when there is plenty of space taken up by the lobby journalists. It is here that the pack work together to call the government to account. Recently some of the more searching questions asked of the prime minister's spokesman (who they still don't refer to by name but is usually Godric Smith) have been: 'Does the PM dye his hair?'; 'Where did the PM buy his shirt'; and, one probably planted by Campbell himself, 'Has the PM got any view on David Beckham's foot?'.

Inevitably, the marginalisation of the lobby did not go down well with the lobby itself, which saw it as an attack on them personally. It was the members of the lobby who reported their demise themselves. This was a bit like allowing football fans to write the reports of games involving their teams - any idea of impartiality went out of the window. One wrote that it was all a dastardly plot to stop honest, hardworking journalists from reporting the truth about politics. Indeed that it was an attack on democracy itself.

When I managed to stand up again, having fallen over laughing, I considered what their reaction might be to another story.

My spies tell me there are moves afoot to move the hacks out of the House and give them space elsewhere. Their complaints now are muted compared to the outcry there will be when the House authorities decide to end all the hacks' privileges and hand their offices back to MPs.

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