On the feralness of the lobby…

Interesting to see how things shift in a short time ago. A year ago, Guido was getting attacked for (admittedly amongst other things) his attacks on the lobby system at Westminster. Now the venerable Peter Wilby is taking up Guido’s argument with a will. In parts it chimes heavily with my own CiF piece earlier last week, but is well worth quoting at length:

The lobby has changed greatly over the past 20 years and, as Blair said, New Labour has made it less secretive. But much of what was said in the 1980s by analysts such as Michael Cockerell, Peter Hennessy and David Walker still holds true. Lobby members – who have desks at Westminster and rarely visit their newspapers’ offices – tend to take a collegiate view of what constitutes news. That view is heavily influenced by politicians and their entourages, with whom they work closely. If the media see conspiracies where none exist, focus on personality and process rather than policy, and always see hidden meanings in ministers’ words, they are only reflecting the common chatter of politicians. Go into Westminster bars, and you won’t hear talk of what Tony Benn calls “the ishoos”. It’s about who’s a crook and who’s a mere bastard.

This gives governments an easier ride than they deserve. First, the political correspondents tend to give politicians the benefit of the doubt. As the truth about the Iraq war and the use of intelligence dribbled out, they took a harsher view of Blair but maintained a largely benign view of his motives. It took a non-lobby specialist, the defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan, to suggest the government was lying. Second, the focus on personalities, trivia and scandal suits governments. A scandal-ridden minister can be speedily dispatched; a failed policy is much harder to reverse.

Third, and crucially, governments control the news agenda. By this, I don’t just mean that most political stories are based on information from government sources or that ministers can neuter hostile journalists by denying them information. I also mean that most policy stories go first, often through selective leaks, to people who won’t ask crucial questions. Political reporters are specialists in power and its relationships, not in education, health or crime. Often, they don’t even spot that the same policy has been announced before with a different spin on it. They cannot tell you what an NHS reorganisation means for doctors or patients, only whether it’s an old or new Labour idea or whether it will enrage or pacify backbenchers.

If the media are now harsher on new Labour than they should be, it may partly be because the policy weaknesses were not given an earlier airing. The limitations and downsides of parent or patient choice, for instance, now strike with the force of revelation, though they were evident to the well-informed from the beginning.

The lobby system makes the press a poor watchdog over government. Contrary to Blair, I would argue that too much attention is paid to Parliament, where almost nothing of importance is decided, and too little to what happens in Whitehall departments, quangos, NHS trusts and so on. But in the same generous spirit as the prime minister, I don’t blame anyone.