New Statesman Profile - The lobby

Is the short trek from the Commons press gallery to be abused at No 10 worth a journalist's shoe lea

As the nights darken, the men - for they are mostly men - of the parliamentary lobby will heave a grateful sigh, their travels round the conference seaside resorts over, and return to the familiar Westminster routine. There, the arch-manipulator Alastair Campbell will spoon-feed them their daily diet of government propaganda which will be faithfully reproduced in their newspapers. Or not.

Certainly this select group of hacks, the political editors and their teams who make up the lobby, have been coming in for some stick recently. In-depth documentaries and books about new Labour's style all have the same message: Labour's spin-doctors are running rings round the press.

Take the recent biography of Alastair Campbell by the Express journalist Peter Oborne: "Everyone who knows him at all agrees that he dislikes - some people say hates - journalists. In particular he dislikes the lobby. He regards it as corrupt, deceitful, untrustworthy, morally worthless and depraved." Oborne, like the BBC's Nick Jones - another lobby correspondent and author of Sultans of Spin - catalogues the tactics employed by Campbell to "spin" the lobby into docile purveyors of new Labour's message. The lobby, it is suggested, is but a shadow of its former self.

Campbell does - to some extent - despise the lobby. He complains that the journalists are lazy and unwilling to venture into the big wide world to find out what's really happening. But he is also frustrated by their herd instinct. Despite Campbell's famed skills at manipulation, as often as not the lobby will tear off as a pack down one alleyway, which is not the direction the government wants. The collective "boo" for Blair's conference speech is an obvious example.

The lobby is officially made up of about 120 British and Irish journalists, though the number who really set the agenda is much smaller. Lobby journalists are the only ones allowed into the bars and lobbies of the Commons and they may go to the twice-daily No 10 briefings. In return, they agree to follow a code covering how they identify sources of information and various other, mostly petty, rules. "On lobby terms" means you can write that ministers are plotting to unseat Blair, but not that Prescott and Cook have told you they are plotting to unseat him- that sort of thing.

The lobby is one of the few remaining closed shops: ministers and MPs will often agree to speak only to lobby journalists - because, well, that's the way it's done. In practice, specialist reporters complain, it's because lobby journalists are by their nature generalists and not up to speed on the latest nuances on, for example, social security spending. So not so many tricky questions. And, despite some changes, the lobby does still play by the rules.

In outward appearance it is different from the lobby of the sixties and seventies. Deference and good manners were the order of the day and the lobby was a quasi-masonic society. Names such as "red mantle" and "blue mantle" were code for briefings by the leader and shadow leader of the House; jackets and ties were to be worn at all times, no running was allowed in the corridor and no notebooks were to be opened in the members' lobby. And, boy, did they take themselves seriously.

Lobby life lightened up a little under Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher's rumbustious press secretary, who brought humour and passion into his "bunkum and balderdash" denunciations of the morning's newspapers. But it was still an exclusive club: Peter Riddell of the Financial Times, James Naughtie of the Guardian, George Jones of the Telegraph, the much missed Gordon Greig of the Mail and Geoffrey Parkhouse of the Glasgow Herald - all men, all held in high regard by the top politicians of the day.

Now the lobby has fractured, partly as a result of the enormous growth in media outlets. There are more women, including well-known names such as Elinor Goodman of Channel 4 News and Rachel Sylvester of the Telegraph, but the majority are "number threes", kept well down the pecking-order. And despite the increased number of women, there has, according to Riddell, now with the Times, been a move to a "laddish" culture, with "remarkably few [journalists] interested in the latest political books or biographies, except where they provide a good story". Political journalism has shifted, according to Riddell, from examination of policies to stories about scandal and misconduct. He blames the style of editors such as Piers Morgan of the Mirror, who reportedly asked "What's the point of writing a book unless you can bring down a cabinet minister?"

The new and the old co-exist unhappily. The running joke through lobby meetings is that there is Old Lobby - the likes of Jones of the Telegraph, Robin Oakley of the BBC, John Deans of the Mail and Michael White of the Guardian. And then there's New Lobby - young turks such as George Pascoe Watson of the Sun and Patrick Hennessy of the Standard, who talk a language, shared with Alastair Campbell, incomprehensible to those not immersed in football culture: "Christ, amazed you could hold your head up this morning"; " Yeah, Shearer's complete crap . . . you lot are finished", and so on.

New Lobby, the theory goes, are a gang of boozy lads about town, with no understanding of political theory but a sharp line in over-selling a story and no compunction about muddying the facts. Old Lobby, they retort, are worthy old farts, who have no idea what their readers are interested in, wouldn't recognise a real story if it hit them on the nose and are far too nice to politicians.

Added to this, the lobby now operates in a Commons that is duller and more controlled than it used to be. The old boozing haunts and shadowy corners are empty. Cabinet ministers who watched the Tory collapse have learnt discretion - a bit. Tony Blair is affable but doesn't open up to selected journalists in the way John Major did (he saw where that led).

All of this has made Campbell's life easier. He is totally at ease in his morning lobby meetings in the underground bunker at No 10. Invariably late (let them know who's boss), usually shirt-sleeved and clutching a mug of tea, he joshes with the New Lads about football, winks at the girls and gets down to business. The Prime Minister is visiting a factory in Luton where four kids on the New Deal have been given a new start in life . . . Eyes glaze while the pack waits to put the questions their newsdesks really want answered: is it true Tony and Gordon had a punch-up in No 10 over Europe? Campbell's contempt for such questions is something to behold. He pours abuse on the questioner - calling his intelligence and parentage into question - thus deflecting the issue.

Campbell is a master of abuse. Sometimes it's scorn, more often it's humorous. Liam Halligan, now of Channel 4 News and a self-confessed "economics conehead", tried to take Campbell on with statistics and awkward questions during a brief stint in the lobby. Campbell's tactic was to dismiss him as "gel boy", a reference to his hairstyle. Halligan believes the personal put-down can subdue the awkward squad: "I was amazed when I got to the lobby at how timid they all were; I'd always thought of it as the height of journalism, but, well, it's hardly Woodward and Bernstein."

Often the meetings, full of banter and bravado, appear a complete waste of time. Haven't grown men and women got better things to do with their day? But Catherine Macleod of the Glasgow Herald says it's not all a game: "If you ask Alastair about real policy issues, he takes you seriously." She cites the example of Des McCartan, political editor of the Belfast Telegraph: "When Des asks questions about Northern Ireland, Alastair gives serious answers." He reserves the cracks for those he has no time for.

So is the short trek from the Commons press gallery to Downing Street worth the shoe leather? Just about, according to Anthony Bevins, now of the Express, who helped take the Independent out of the lobby in the eighties. "We learnt when we were out of the lobby that it's not very important, but Campbell does come up with the occasional story, which is very clever, because you always wonder if you might be missing something."

More significant than the lobby meetings are the phone calls and briefings which take place outside. A group of lobby members, often comprising John Sergeant of the BBC, Mike Brunson of ITN, Elinor Goodman of Channel 4 News and Phil Webster of the Times, will sometimes wait behind after the lobby meeting for a private huddle with Campbell. It's then, and in private phone calls, that much of the valuable "feeding" takes place. Campbell's savaging of the reporting of John Simpson from Kosovo was the product of one such "huddle". This, too, is a tradition. In the trade it is known, bitterly by those excluded, as "the white commonwealth".

The Murdoch press - still - gets favoured treatment. The chosen few from the Sun and the Times are usually the first port of call for a judicious "leak". Others, out of the loop, will either try to prise the story from their colleagues over a drink later that night or wait unhappily for the midnight phone call from their newsdesk: "The Times has got XYZ - why the fuck haven't we?" Whereupon the hapless hack will cobble together his own version, cursing his bad luck in not working for a paper Campbell needs to keep sweet.

There are dangers ahead for the Blair government. On right-wing papers, the editors' agendas are gathering momentum. The new generation of lobby journalists is less concerned with parliamentary niceties than getting a front-page story. And newspapers, hungry for off-message stories, are supplementing their "lobby gentlemen" with wilder cards such as Kevin Maguire on the Guardian and Andrew Pierce on the Times, who are not afraid to rock the boat. The irony is that it is Campbell's very success in controlling the lobby that is leading to the final break-up of the secretive Broederbond. New Labour's spin-doctors could live to regret it.