Off the record, on the house

Obscure Scribblers
March 19, 2004

This book delivers much more than it promises. For, far from merely recording the "scribblings" of "obscure" parliamentary reporters, it provides an eloquent, if not comprehensive, history of political journalism in Britain. In an age in which the entrails of the relationship between politicians and journalists are being examined with an intensity worthy of a forensic scientist, Andrew Sparrow's history provides an invaluable background and context, not simply to the historical evolution of parliamentary journalism, but also to the way politicians and journalists have interacted over the past four centuries.

While commentators decry modern ethical standards in political journalism, Sparrow reminds us that things used to be much worse. He tells how the diarist Samuel Johnson - a "parliamentary reporter" who prided himself on never having set foot inside Parliament - boasted that a much-praised speech by Pitt the Elder that he had "reported" had in fact been written "in a garret in Exeter Street".

Sparrow guides us well through the main stages in the struggle to report the proceedings of Parliament - from the time when it was a crime to report what MPs said in the chamber, through the struggles of John Wilkes and others in the 18th century to allow MPs' deliberations to be published, until the present when, far from journalists striving to publicise what MPs are saying, politicians are clamouring for media coverage. Sparrow reminds us of the remark commonly heard around Westminster today - that the best way to keep an official secret is to announce it in the chamber of the House of Commons.

In journalistic parlance, the term "parliamentary reporter" refers to that relatively small group of (mainly) men who sit in the press gallery recording proceedings, whose output can mainly be read in the pages of The Times and The Daily Telegraph and on the Press Association wires. But there is another group, unmentioned by Sparrow, that sits in broadcasting studios across the road. It monitors Parliament for the radio and TV programmes that still report this aspect of Westminster life. Sparrow is very much a print journalist and, to some extent, has underreported the role and impact of political and parliamentary broadcasting on the contemporary media/political nexus.

However, it is the political reporters known as the lobby who have captured the headlines in recent years. Strictly speaking, they are also parliamentary reporters, although apart from the once-a-week ritual of prime minister's questions, they are rarely seen inside the chamber. They are the most important link in the chain that is supposed to connect politicians to the public through the media. Sparrow records well the role of "the lobby" and its rise as a separate group. Of particular fascination is the battle that raged over the past two decades between journalists and politicians as to whether the twice-daily briefings by the prime minister's official spokesman should be on or off the record.

One could be forgiven for thinking that it would be the journalists who, as advocates of the "public's right to know", would be arguing for briefings to be on the record, while Downing Street would be anxious to keep them strictly "between ourselves". Not so. For many years the lobby twisted itself into knots to proclaim that in the interests of greater press freedom, lobby briefings should be off the record. And it was clear from the earliest days of the lobby (its origins go back only to the period after the 1926 general strike) that the system of off-the-record briefings suited both sides of this cosy club.

The system allowed politicians and/or their spokesmen to plant ideas in the public mind without having to take responsibility for the consequences, while journalists believed that unattributable briefings gave them a greater insight into the political process than could official statements.

It also gave lobby members a great sense of self-importance; indeed, if they were forced to attend briefings that were on the record, they feared their activities would be reduced to mere reporting as the original rules of the lobby described it.

But the system was always problematic if not plain crazy. Sparrow quotes Donald Maitland, Ted Heath's press secretary, telling the lobby he might give certain information off the record, but if a non-lobby reporter phoned him he would offer the same information on the record. Sparrow records former ITN political editor Glyn Mathias recalling the ludicrous situation of lobby journalists rushing from an off-the-record briefing to record the same politician being interviewed on television, saying the same thing on the record. The situation is now more sensible, with briefings attributed to the prime minister's official spokesperson speaking on the record.

Perhaps the book's one serious omission is its failure to probe more deeply into why, throughout much of the past half-century, the political output of many national newspapers has been seen - by the public and researchers alike - as virulently anti-Labour. Sparrow touches on the issue by observing that most parliamentary reporters have not been naturally anti-Labour; certainly Conservative supporters would probably have been in the minority at Westminster at any time over the past 20 years. But even if the reporting of Parliament has been more or less "fair", why has that not been the overall impression conveyed in the national press? The answer lies in the power of proprietors to shape newspapers to suit their own political prejudices, and this has had a major impact on the way politics have been reported over the past four centuries.

Despite these minor reservations, this is an admirable book that provides an excellent outline history of the relationship between journalists and politicians - a relationship that American writer H. L. Mencken once described as similar to that between a dog and a lamppost. Mencken never said which was which but, as Sparrow's book makes clear, the two roles have been, and to an extent still are, somewhat interchangeable.

Ivor Gaber is emeritus professor of broadcast journalism, Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Obscure Scribblers: A History of Parliamentary Journalism

Author - Andrew Sparrow
Publisher - Politico's
Pages - 238
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 1 845 061 5

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