A 'fascinating' history of the political press pack: Baroness Wheatcroft reviews Carole Walker's Lobby Life
Carole Walker pictured on College Green, 2018 | Alamy
Carole Walker has produced an engaging account – but fails to convey the sheer fun of being part of the extraordinary circus that is political journalism
Journalists tend to combine intense competitiveness with a strong sense of camaraderie. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the Lobby, that idiosyncratic institution of which Carole Walker was a member for 20 years. Her new book, Lobby Life, provides fascinating illustrations of those contradictory characteristics but it doesn’t convey the sheer sense of fun in being part of the extraordinary circus of political journalism.
Newsrooms run on adrenaline but also an abundance of wit and laughter. In the years when I attended the daily morning conference at The Times, it always felt a huge privilege, akin to being at an excellent dinner party, but with coffee rather than wine to lubricate proceedings. With colleagues including Michael Gove, and the now Lord Finkelstein and Baroness Cavendish of Little Venice, the conversation was fast moving, opinionated and ranged from the deeply serious to the hugely entertaining. No one doubted that our role was to accurately inform readers – but it was also to entertain, and those dual purposes coloured proceedings.
Walker’s account of the system by which only certain journalists are granted access to wander through Parliament, corner MPs and attend Lobby briefings is an interesting history, with Sir Bernard Ingham and Alastair Campbell particularly in the spotlight. It takes us from top secret sessions in 1926 to the publicly televised press conferences that Covid has precipitated. Walker looks back to the boozy culture that flourished in the now-defunct Annie’s Bar, from where, after a night of drinking one political editor would regularly end the session by phoning through his copy to the news desk, to the “Me Too” era, in which women political journalists have felt enabled to name and shame offending gropers.
The Lobby is driven by the thrill of the chase
In the era of the internet, and 24 hour news, much of the business of journalism has changed but the aim remains the same. As Katharine Graham, the redoubtable publisher of the Washington Post, used to say: “News is what someone wants suppressed.” That remains true but, all too often, the role of those briefing the Lobby is to try and ensure that they are, at best, only partially successful in unearthing the real news. Yet an attempt by a few papers, led by The Independent, to take a principled stand and boycott the Lobby system was relatively short-lived. In the unequal relationship between government and those who seek to hold them to account, limited inside information is preferable to none.
Away from those orchestrated meetings, the Lobby is driven by the thrill of the chase. One of Walker’s more colourful anecdotes concerns Theresa May’s trip to the United Nations in 2017. The then foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, had threatened to resign if she pursued the Brexit-lite that was being mooted. Waiting in the entrance of a New York hotel, some in the Lobby group traveling with May spotted Johnson returning from a run. As he headed to the lift, so did they, Sky’s Beth Rigby holding open the doors so all her colleagues could squeeze in for the impromptu news conference.
Johnson rewarded them with the news that the cabinet was united again, “like a nest of singing birds”. But would one of them have held open the lift doors for rivals?
Baroness Wheatcroft is a Crossbench peer and former journalist
Lobby Life: Inside Westminster’s Secret Society by Carole Walker is published by Elliott & Thompson
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