Watching brief - Peter Wilby doubts the need for the lobby

The parliamentary lobby is probably the last closed shop in the country and its defenders insist it

In his Times column on 1 June, Andrew Pierce noted that the BBC had placed an advertisement in national newspapers, inviting applications to replace Andrew Marr as political editor. Pierce quoted a BBC source: this unprecedented move "is totemic . . . I accept there are only a few people who could do the job."

What does this mean? Broadcasting, it is true, is a skill that most of us will never master. But there are surely dozens, if not hundreds, of TV and radio reporters who could do the job to a high standard. Moreover, the three most recent BBC political editors all came from newspapers, without any obvious evidence that they could be broadcasting stars. On the contrary, many would have said that John Cole had too impenetrable an accent, that Robin Oakley was too pompous and that Marr waved his hands too much.

I suspect Pierce's source was referring not to a scarcity of broadcasting or reporting talent, but to something else entirely. This is the need for a political editor to be thoroughly trained in the conventions of the parliamentary lobby. The lobby is just about the last closed shop in the country. It is not quite impossible for reporters outside it to speak to ministers and their advisers, but it is very difficult.

As a committee chaired by Lord Puttnam for the Hansard Society (and including several members of the lobby) noted last month, parliamentary passes for non-lobby journalists, allowing them to cover select committee proceedings, for example, are hard to come by, particularly if the journalists are from outside the mainstream.

Perhaps more important, it is now almost inconceivable that any national paper or major broadcasting organisation would parachute a journalist from another field - a foreign posting, say, or health or crime - straight into political editing. Some kind of apprenticeship is required. Yet editors often shuffle other correspondents around, fearing that, if a journalist stays too long in one specialist area, he or she will go native. Such concerns do not apply to the lobby.

I make no judgement on whether ministers and MPs are treated, as a result, too gently. My interest is in a more far-reaching and subtle consequence. The lobby allows no political event - a speech, a white paper, a ministerial decision - to have meaning in itself; like a piece of poetry in a postmodern university literature department, it must always signify something else. What does an NHS reorganisation or an "initiative" on behaviour in schools mean for doctors, patients, teachers or children? The political journalists cannot tell you. They can tell you that this is a Blairite or Brownite idea, that it shows the minister is "getting a grip" or losing it, that it will pacify backbenchers or enrage them. They are not specialists in health or education; they are specialists in politics or, more precisely, in power and its relationships. This is unsurprising and, in its way, unobjectionable.

But most decisions and speeches are now first reported through the prism of the lobby. Selected political journalists are briefed in advance on what the minister will do or say. They will grasp the political significance - if the briefer mentions "markets", Blairites are in the ascendancy - but will not ask searching questions about the speech or decision itself because they lack the background knowledge. The actual announcement, coming some hours or days later, is often given only cursory attention.

Most political journalists would argue that government decisions are usually dull and the lobby injects necessary drama. I am not so sure: the public shows every sign of being bored witless by the Blair-Brown struggle, the main drama of the past decade. Either way, the outcome is that people get an inadequate account of ministerial actions and their results. There is, to borrow a phrase from no less a person than John Birt, a bias against understanding. It does not look as if the BBC plans to give an improved service.

On 6 June the Guardian's press commentator, Roy Greenslade, gave us a list of headlines such as "Big bucks Becks" and asked us to guess which paper they came from. Not, he revealed, from the Sun or the Mirror as we may have thought, but from the Mail, which "is becoming more populist by the week".

Fair enough. But where, on 3 June, did the following come from, over pictures of six novelists, five well known and one (at least to English readers) unknown? "Which of these writers has won the first international Booker Prize? Clue: he's big in Tirana." The technique is pure Daily Mail - as is the implication that it is somehow comical to choose "a giant of Albanian letters", as the story beneath sarcastically put it - but this was not the Mail. I will refrain from naming which paper it was, and from indulging in homilies on pots and kettles.

Amanda Platell is away

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, G8 protest: how far should you go?