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Wednesday, 15 March, 2000, 18:11 GMT
Lobby loses some age-old mystique
Alastair Campbell
Alastair Campbell - now officially the PM's official spokesman
For those who didn't already know, Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman is called Alastair Campbell.

Well, of course he is. "Tell me something new," mutter many readers.

But there is more to this than just stating the plain obvious. A shake-up in the conventions of political reporting means, for the first time, coverage of Mr Campbell's morning press briefings will refer to him by name.

It's a detail that will probably go unnoticed by the average news consumer. After all, Mr Campbell is a high profile figure and his job has never been a secret.

Mike McCurry takes a press conference
In the public eye: Bill Clinton's former press secretary, Mike McCurry
But the move to name him is another knock to the age-old "lobby system" - the off-the-record briefings that govern a large amount of Westminster reporting.

In the United States, the president has an official spokesman who stages daily on-the-record briefings for Washington journalists. There can be no dispute about what is said or who said it since the briefings are open and televised.

Traditionally, Westminster has taken the opposite approach. The "lobby" is the name given to a select group of journalists who enjoy privileged access to certain parts of Parliament.

Their chief privilege is access to the House of Commons members' lobby, where journalists can pick up stories from MPs on the strict understanding they are not mentioned by name.

Code of conduct

Instead, a code has developed, so quotes are attributed to a "friend of the prime minister" or "sources close to the chancellor".

Sir Bernard Ingham
Sir Bernard Ingham, a defender of the lobby system
Lobby journalists also attend two daily government briefings hosted by Mr Campbell - one at Downing Street at 11am and another inside Parliament at 4pm.

Before the present government, these briefings were off-the-record. Mr Campbell put them on-the-record but, in a bid to keep his profile low, made them anonymous. Now that has changed.

The lobby system provokes fierce opinion on both sides, from journalists and politicians. Reporters on the inside argue it allows MPs to speak candidly without fear of being named.

Opponents say it encourages lazy journalism and allows for rumour-mongering and personal attacks.

Sir Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher's combative press secretary, once described minister John Biffen as a "semi-detatched member of the cabinet". He hit back, calling the lobby a channel for the "transmission of sewage".

10 Downing Street
The morning meetings are in the basement of Number 10
In the past, efforts to break the lobby system have failed. The most notable was led by the Independent newspaper, when it launched in 1986.

Pushing an agenda of greater openness, the paper boycotted lobby briefings and was followed by the Guardian, but to little avail.

So what does it mean for the lobby system now that Alastair Campbell's name will appear in lobby reports?

It seems Mr Campbell has been keen to open up the cosy lobby arrangement. Indeed, he was bounced into agreeing to be named after inviting a documentary maker to film the morning briefings, thereby effectively blowing a huge hole in the confidential code.

Inside story

But reporters on the inside are stout defenders of the system which delivers them some juicy exclusives.

Opting for a US-style approach would not prevent a clique of on-side reporters who would still be fed off-the-record stories, they argue. The current system is "democratic", giving local newspaper reporters as much access to the corridors of power as the national press.

Critics, however, hit back with the charge that a select group already exists.

It seems there is still a long way to go before the lobby is broken. The latest sop to openness heightens the chance that Mr Campbell will agree to a daily broadcast of morning briefings, which are arranged by Downing Street.

The afternoon briefing, which is run by the lobby itself, shows no sign of change and journalists will continue to prowl the neo-Gothic passageways of Parliament in search of a whispered tip-off.
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