What is the parliamentary lobby?
The term ‘lobby’ is used to describe the group of journalists who cover political events in the UK, and relates to the special access they are granted to the members’ lobby in the Palace of Westminster. The members’ lobby is effectively a large hallway in which members of parliament have traditionally gathered for discussions. To gain access to the lobby, journalists must receive the assent of the serjeant at arms, who is responsible for keeping order within the House of Commons.
What do lobby journalists do?
Lobby journalists report on political events and relationships, analysing what different actors in politics think of particular government decisions and assessing the changing relationships and power dynamics across Westminster. Ailbhe Rea from Politico said on a podcast discussing the lobby that, “what’s important is finding out what’s being said behind closed doors… lobby journalists love the gossip and the human drama side of thing.” 34 Rea A, Inside the Lobby: Westminster’s political journalists, Politico, 27 May 2022, www.politico.eu/podcast/the-lobby-westminsters-political-journalists-andrew-marr-alan-rusbridger-harry-cole-aletha-adu-ali-donnelly/ Under the so-called 'lobby rule', much of the information gathered in this way is reported anonymously, attributed simply to ‘government sources’ or the like.
Lobby journalists also attend a daily lobby briefing when they can ask questions to the prime minister’s spokesperson, a civil servant. These briefings used to happen twice a day in the House of Commons, with the second one being a more informal discussion, but in 2020 Boris Johnson’s government moved them to once a day in Downing Street.
Martinson J, The Westminster lobby system is at the heart of a press freedom fight, The Guardian, 19 January 2020, www.theguardian.com/media/commentisfree/2020/jan/19/the-westminster-lobby-system-is-at-the-heart-of-a-press-freedom-fight
After Covid restrictions were lifted in 2021, the briefings began taking place twice a day again while the House of Commons is sitting, but they are still located in Downing Street.
Lobby journalists say that there are benefits to working together, including at the briefing sessions when they can hold the prime minister’s spokesperson to account and ensure that unanswered questions are followed up. Even though lobby journalists work for different publications and media companies, they tend to build close working relationships with each other and may share information and compare angles on a story.
Who is in the lobby?
The lobby consists of journalists working for many news outlets from across the political spectrum, including broadcasters and newspapers. 36 Wikipedia, The Lobby, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lobby As of September 2022, there were 429 members. 37 Parliament.uk, Register of Journalists' Interests [as at 18 August 2022], https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmjournl/220819/journalists.htm There is also representation from outside the UK, with members from organisations such as CNN (US) and Nikkei (Japan).
Every year the lobby elects a chair of the lobby and a chair of the press gallery, who represent lobby members and liaise with parliament and members of the government, including organising occasions for journalists to meet ministers. Currently, the Independent political editor Andrew Woodcock serves as the press gallery chair, while Bloomberg political editor Kitty Donaldson is lobby chair. 38 Tobit C, Journalists covering London’s City Hall launch lobby in bid to boost transparency, Press Gazette, 22 July 2022, https://pressgazette.co.uk/news/city-hall-lobby/
Ali Donnelly, a former deputy spokesperson for Theresa May, spoke to Politico about the lack of diversity in the lobby, in terms of gender and ethnicity. According to this report, the lobby has been and remains mainly male, and in recent years disproportionately privately educated. Currently, men make up 65% of the lobby.
How has the lobby changed over time?
The lobby emerged in the late 19th century. In the 1870s, the Speaker of the House of Commons John Denison stopped the public from entering the lobby and disturbing MPs. 39 The Lobby, Press Gallery, 6 March 2015, https://pressgallery.org.uk/2015/03/06/the-lobby/ Only those on a list held by the serjeant of arms, which included certain reporters, were allowed in the lobby.
Through the 20th century, the lobby reported government information on an unattributable basis, with “the very existence of the system” kept secret. This changed in the 1980s when several newspapers, led by the Independent, boycotted the lobby system. The government acknowledged the existence of lobby briefings and allowed attribution of quotes to “Downing Street sources”.
Then in the 1990s Tony Blair’s director of communications, Alastair Campbell, opened up the lobby further, including by allowing foreign media outlets and specialists to attend lobby briefings. He also allowed for one lobby briefing to be broadcast on the BBC, in 2000, but that has not happened since.
During the pandemic Boris Johnson’s government had suggested it would start regular televised briefings, after the prime minister decided to relocate the lobby to 10 Downing Street. 40 Allegretti A, First pictures released of Boris Johnson's new £2.6m briefing room, The Guardian, 15 March 2021, www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/mar/15/no-10-offers-first-sight-of-26m-white-house-style-briefing-room However, this idea was later ditched.
What is the relationship between lobby journalists and the government like?
Lobby journalists are sometime criticised for being too close to the politicians and officials who are the sources of their stories. At the same time, the government often gets frustrated with journalists for the way they write up stories.
In recent years, lobby journalists were critical of the government’s decision to move lobby briefings into Downing Street. Further tension arose during Johnson’s tenure when then director of communications, Lee Cain, proposed only delivering a briefing to a pre-approved list of journalists, arguing that “we’re welcome to brief whoever we like, whenever we like.” 41 Waugh P, Journalists Walk Out As Downing Street Tries To Ban Some News Outlets From Briefing, Huffington Post, 3 February 2020, www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/no10-walkout-journalists-lee-cain-trump_uk_5e384359c5b6f262332d9603 ]
What criticisms are there of the lobby system?
Critics of the lobby system argue that it privileges political gossip and rumour over detailed scrutiny of government policy. Andrew Marr said on the Politico podcast on the lobby that “human relationships” between journalists and politicians are key to getting stories, but this also presents the risk of a journalist who is insufficiently distant from their sources and therefore are unable to properly assess the information being given to them.
The same podcast also discussed the risk that lobby journalists 'agree the story' together, 42 Rea A, Inside the Lobby: Westminster’s political journalists, Politico, 27 May 2022, www.politico.eu/podcast/the-lobby-westminsters-political-journalists-andrew-marr-alan-rusbridger-harry-cole-aletha-adu-ali-donnelly/ so that everyone takes a similar line and nobody feels like they have missed out – which can mean that more important stories are missed, or, in extreme cases, discussions are misrepresented.
In 2003, an independent review of government communications, chaired by the then chief executive of the Guardian Media Group, Bob Phillis, found that the lobby system was “no longer working”. 43 Phillis B, An Independent Review of Government Communications, 2004, https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100407193140/http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/media/cabinetoffice/corp/assets/publications/reports/commun… The review reported that journalists disliked public information “being used as the currency in a system of favouritism”, while government ministers and officials took issue with the way their words were altered and "distorted" by the media.
The review recommended that “all major government media briefings should be on the record, live on television and radio and with full transcripts available promptly online”, and that ministers “should deliver announcements… at the daily lobby briefings, which should also be televised”. None of these recommendations were followed.
More recently, critics have argued that the lobby system should be abolished, as it “separates politicians from the consequences of their actions.” Journalist James Ball argued that as briefing to lobby journalists is anonymous and so hard to understand who is behind it, specialist journalists and the public are unable to scrutinise the decisions made in government. 44 Ball J, A modest proposal for 2019: scrap the parliamentary lobby, The Guardian, 26 December 2018, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/26/scrap-parliamentary-lobby-westminster-journalists