Alex Hilton: Why I mistrust lobby journalism

When people talk about the lobby system, they are referring to a specific arrangement that is supposed to shine a light for the public into the otherwise impenetrable world of politics.

Alex Hilton
Alex Hilton

Unlike any other arena of journalism, a lobby reporter should know nearly everyone who might be the subject of a story. And so, because the world of politics is so small, the lobby system emerged, where journalists no longer needed two sources and had no need to quote anyone in a story. They neither have to say who is the subject of the piece, nor offer them a right of reply.

And yet a story with none of these safeguards can become a Sunday Times splash, for example, carrying all the weight of authority of a venerable newspaper.

I recall a few years ago mulling over with a lobby reporter how I would get out of Number 10 if I were the then prime minister Tony Blair. A week later, my meanderings appeared as a double-page spread and my words were quoted as a 'senior Blairite minister'.

Because politicians are beneficiaries of this system, turning mere gossip into a weapon, a side effect has emerged: MPs don't sue. Of course, some do. Nadine Dorries and George Galloway are two examples.

But often an MP's litigiousness is inversely proportional to their likelihood of a ministerial career.

Despite finding it hard to stomach Galloway and Dorries under most circumstances, their willingness to go to the lawyers is reassuring. I know anything I read about them is likely to be true and checked.

Conversely, anything I read about the cabinet or Tory front bench requires me to guess what is made up and identify the one factoid that might be gossip, rumour or truth. This is a failure to illuminate. The lobby is giving the public a mirage of the truth while actively withholding the actual truth.

So I read last week's Sunday Times telling me that Prime Minister Gordon Brown is planning for electoral defeat, and that he will manipulate shadow cabinet elections to favour Ed Balls.

I just don't know how much has been made up. No quotes. No sources. But it was in The Sunday Times ...

- Alex Hilton is a Labour parliamentary candidate and founder of political blogs Labourhome and Recess Monkey.

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