They are at it again. They are trying to kill the 112 year-old
Parliamentary lobby, that fine body of creative thinkers formed by
British political correspondents.
This time the knife is wielded by Joy Johnson, ex-BBC news editor who
did not survive a year as Labour’s campaigns director. Her role would be
funny, since she was frozen out by Peter Mandelson MP and Alastair
Campbell, Tony Blair’s press secretary, if it were not pathetic. Like
most of those who have tried to bust the system, she simply doesn’t know
what’s what. So, having been No 10 press secretary during the last anti-
lobby assault in 1986, I feel an irresistible urge to explain. First,
the lobby is not the Government’s creature as former Guardian editor
Peter Preston seemed to assume when he wrote to me ten years ago
announcing his intention to ‘withdraw’. I had to refer him to the
Rather, the lobby is part of the machinery for regulating access to the
Palace of Westminster. And the real lobby perk is to reach parts other
Parliamentary journalists can’t - namely the members’ lobby where they
can buttonhole ministers and MPs. This made nonsense of Mr Preston’s
‘withdrawal’. The Guardian had no more intention of foregoing that
privilege than had the original anti-lobby campaigner, the Independent’s
conspiracy-addled political editor Anthony Bevins.
So why the fuss? Well, like Messrs Preston and Bevins, Ms Johnson
objects to the No 10 press secretary briefing journalists on lobby
terms, ie. unattributably. She believes that when the briefer can hide
his identity, he can, and does, manipulate the poor innocents that are
lobby journalists. Worse, he can, as I was accused of doing, undermine
defenceless ministers. Bunkum.
According to Ms Johnson, the No 10 press secretary must be on the record
and, she says, on camera. Since my day, he can be identified, if not
personally, as No 10 spokesman. In any case, they never hesitated to
quote or identify me when it helped their story.
Ms Johnson also seems blissfully unaware that the press secretary isn’t
on the record because our system has adapted to its peculiar
constitutional environment. Our politicians are the front men, officials
are the backroom boys, better neither seen nor heard. Why has Mr
Campbell never broadcast since his first week with Mr Blair? Because
Labour MPs revolted against a high profile press secretary, even in
And let us not forget that in America, where press secretaries are on
the record and on camera, journalists want them on lobby terms for
deeper background when it suits their purpose.
What I can’t stand in these monstrous regiments of would-be lobby
reformers is their unique blend of self-serving ignorance, piety and