It’s traditional at the end of the year to look back on what’s happened and what we’ve done – and what we might do differently next year. For those of us in politics or the media, after a year as frenetic and divisive as 2018 this becomes a serious duty.
So here is a proposal for how we might do better in 2019: let’s scrap the lobby system of political journalism entirely. This is not – despite what Twitter commentators might think – because lobby journalists are biased, untalented, or lazy. Far from it: some of the most talented, ambitious and diligent reporters in the UK work from the lobby, and it’s the home to journalists used to netting page one, or the top of the bulletin.
It’s a shame that they’re wasted in the lobby, a system which by design separates politics from policy, and separates politicians from the consequences of their actions.
The problems start with the physical location of political journalists, who work from their own offices in the Palace of Westminster, rather than from their own newsrooms.
Lobby journalists can know each other better than they know journalists in their own newsroom, reinforcing the instinct to focus on politics – who’s up, who’s down – rather than policy itself, and can also encourage hacks to run in a pack, checking news lines with one another.
It also clearly leads to lobby journalists being highly likely to count some of the politicians and advisers they mix with as friends. This is absolutely natural and happens across journalism, but nonetheless the institution undeniably encourages a cosiness that may not serve the public as well as it could.
Bigger problems come from the workings of the lobby – a sort-of-on-the-record morning briefing, an off-the-record afternoon huddle, and the endless language of “sources in”, “friends of”, “people familiar with”, and more.
It is common practice for the leader of the opposition’s office, for example, to have its official spokesman respond to a press query on background – allowing their response to be written into the article in veiled terms, but leaving no actual statement, giving the impression to some that no opportunity was given to comment.
This news management gets worse on the government side: policies can be “leaked” – in practice officially released, but presented as being from “sources” or similar – late in the day to a lobby journalist, who will inevitably push for page one.
The timing, and the understandable desire for a journalist to own their scoop, keeps journalists with policy expertise away from the story, meaning it will often follow the government line – especially if it’s given on a “no approach” basis, meaning outside experts can’t be contacted before publication.
The biggest problem, though, is that by and large lobby journalists are the only reporters senior politicians will talk to. Many of the biggest stories require months of research for a reporter to really know the facts, the details, and the lives of people affected.
The reporter who has done that work, though, is often not the one who can challenge a minister on it. And even a well-intentioned lobby journalist will likely only get a briefing lasting 10 to 15 minutes from their colleague on what to ask: and the journalist sitting with the minister will not be the same one who sat down with the mother unable to feed herself or her family because of the failings of universal credit.
The beneficiary from this distance isn’t the media, and it certainly isn’t the public: it is people in positions of power, who manage to co-opt a system designed to hold them to account into another layer insulating them from scrutiny.
Parliament and its procedures are immensely complex and we will always need some reporters to specialise in it. We should also note there is no shortage of journalists within the lobby doing their best for accountability within a system designed to stymie them.
The institution of the lobby is painfully out of date: it could never be created in its current form in the modern day. Few in the country will feel nostalgic for it – and if just a few outlets stopped playing along (as has been tried before) in the internet era, others would soon have to follow. Will 2019 see someone take the first step?
• James Ball is the author of Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World