Lobby hacks, the sacking of Alastair Stewart, and why stairs are deadlier than flu

The parliamentary lobby fear losing their monopoly over political news. That’s a good thing. 

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The exclusion of several political journalists from a Downing Street briefing, prompting colleagues from rival papers and broadcasters to walk out in solidarity on 3 February, is being interpreted as an attempt by Boris Johnson and his aides to create a more compliant press. No doubt that is a factor, and we should deplore it. But all the journalists involved are members of the parliamentary lobby, a pompous group of hacks who get privileged access to MPs and ministers provided they don’t name their sources.

The lobby’s rules and customs are comparable to those of a Masonic lodge or to the restrictive practices of an old-style trade union. It is becoming obsolete because, with iPhones, email, text and WhatsApp, reporters no longer need special parliamentary passes to communicate with politicians. Its members fear losing their monopoly over political news. That’s a good thing. Far too often, ministerial decisions, proposals or speeches about, for example, health, social security, education or transport are channelled through the lobby and, therefore, reported for their political significance, not for their likely effects on doctors, patients, teachers or children. Lobby journalists are experts in who will be sacked or promoted, what will please backbenchers, what may provoke a revolt. They live in the Westminster bubble, offering insights into the minutiae of politics but not into the substance of government policies. Their scrutiny of how power is used is wholly inadequate.

Worry by all means about what Johnson and his cronies are up to. But don’t acclaim the lobby hacks as guardians of press freedom and democratic accountability.

Twitter spats

I have known Alastair Stewart, the veteran ITN newsreader sacked for “inappropriate” tweets, since his early twenties, when he was big in student politics. I may even claim some responsibility for his subsequent career, having advised, when he was debating job options, that he should go into TV “because you’re smooth enough”, a judgement with which he seemed less than happy. Like others who knew him better, I can vouch that he was not then a racist. On the contrary, his outlook would now be called “woke”.

I greatly doubt that he is a racist now, despite his quoting a line from Shakespeare about an “angry ape” during an argument with a black man on Twitter. But why should Stewart – intelligent, witty, sociable, charming, well-connected – get involved in Twitter spats at all? Why, indeed, does anybody in public life? I joined Twitter in 2012 and, for a few months, struggled to think of what to tweet. I then decided I had better things to do and now, with rare exceptions, post only links to my columns and other articles.

Journalists, broadcasters and politicians should follow my example. Tweeting brings nothing but trouble. Those who enjoy public platforms have no need of it.

Death by stairs

In 1957, I caught the Asian flu, which killed an estimated two million people worldwide. My mother informed our GP, who said he could do nothing for me. That is all I remember. Later, I lived through Hong Kong flu (1968), Russian flu (1977), Sars (2002), bird flu (2005) and swine flu (2009). In each case, I remember alarming newspaper headlines better than any illness suffered by me or anyone known to me. I do not advocate complacency about the coronavirus which, as I write, has caused more than 400 deaths. But as a threat to life, it is still well behind falling down the stairs, from which more than 800 die each year in Britain alone.

Pounds and ounces

I still wonder why so many voted for Brexit. How exactly do those 17.4 million people think leaving the EU will improve their lives? They can’t all be racists, can they? Now, in the Mail on Sunday, Annunziata Rees-Mogg, former Brexit Party MEP and sister of Jacob, brings enlightenment: she refers to “viscerally important” concerns about “being unable to buy fruit and veg in imperial measures”. So that’s it: we’ve left so we can have our pounds and ounces back.

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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 appears in the 07 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Europe after Brexit