By Simon Basketter
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A lobby of liars—the system behind people such as Allegra Stratton

This article is over 1 years, 11 months old
The parliamentary press gallery was born as a way of keeping people out of parliament.
Issue 2785
Prime minister's former spokesperson Allegra Stratton stands in front of two Union jacks

A leaked video brought down Stratton (Pic: ITV News)

Boris Johnson said he was “very, very sorry” to lose adviser Allegra Stratton after she quit over a video showing her joking about a lockdown Christmas party at Downing Street.

He added that she had been an “outstanding spokesperson for the government” which was true enough. Notably a number of journalists responded to her tearful resignation with admiration.

Some pointed out how quickly she had resigned. They included political journalist Robert Peston who tweeted, “She is a model for many in modern politics”.

In the footage that led to her quitting, Stratton and Ed Oldfield were filmed rehearsing how to lie. One of the reasons they ended up laughing at the fake question is they know no real lobby journalist would ask such an impertinent question. And at the time none of them did.

Part of that is class. So 43 percent of the 100 most influential editors and broadcasters according to the Sutton Trust went to private school. And 44 percent went to Oxford or Cambridge universities.

Among the population 7 percent go to the posh schools and less than 1 percent of the population go to Oxbridge.

Stratton did both of those but there is more to it than that. After time at the New Statesman, Stratton worked for the Guardian, then was political editor of BBC’s Newsnight, editor of ITV News and co-presenter of Peston on Sunday.

She was chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Director of Strategic Communications until she became the press secretary for10 Downing Street. Sunak was the best man at her wedding to James Forsyth, political editor of The Spectator

But Stratton’s career is far from unusual. Oldfield, the man asking the question in the video, cut his teeth working in PR with the lobbying consultancy firm Hanbury Strategy which was set up by Ameet Gill who was the director of strategy for David Cameron.

Stratton was replaced as a press officer when she was spinning the Cop26 climate talks by Rosie Bate-Williams who worked for the lobbyist firm Portland Communications—a company awash with Tory spin advisers and journalists—before doing Tory party PR.

Boris Johnson has had three directors of communications.

Lee Cain was a journalist on The Sun and The Mirror. After leaving Downing Street he set up a PR company.

He was followed by James Slack who had been political editor of The Daily Mail. He left Downing Street in March for a job at The Sun.

Jack Doyle is the current Downing Street director of communications and was previously the associate editor of the Daily Mail.

It is an old merry go round. The parliamentary press gallery was born as a way of keeping people out of parliament.

In May 1803, a mob, as these things tend to be called, forced reporters from their usual seats in parliament. In response the Speaker ruled that part of the public gallery would be reserved in future for the gentlemen of the press.

Later the front of parliament–the lobby–also needed ordinary people kept out. In 1870 the Speaker was concerned that members of the public wandering into the lobby were an “inconvenience” to MPs. So only those registered on a list kept by the Serjeant at Arms—lobbyists and certain privileged reporters—would be allowed access.

By the end of the 19th century political journalism established a style–gallery reporters chronicled what was said, lobby correspondents used their inside track for gossip.

Like all posh clubs the lobby journalists invented rituals and rules for themselves.

They have “huddles” for big announcements. Not naming MPs as sources still applies, hence the tedious use of “friends” and “people familiar with” and “sources close to”.

All are deliberate attempts to show they know things you don’t due to their closeness to those at the top. It is that real or fake closeness that sees journalists stand outside parliament or Downing Street in the dark claiming to know what is going on inside.

It was during the 1926 General Strike that they got a real role. The cabinet decided to hold discreet daily briefings with selected journalists on how the strike was going.

This became a permanent secretive system of closed information-sharing of mutual benefit to politicians and journalists.

Initially members of the lobby were supposed to deny the existence of the system.

Labour prime minister Harold Wilson praised it as “an essential thread of precious metal in our British parliamentary democracy”, then later decided it was part of a conspiracy against him. He was probably right on both counts.

Under Margaret Thatcher, press secretary Bernard Ingham used the lobby to attack members of the cabinet Thatcher didn’t like.

They system crumbled a bit under its own contradictions. When John Major was prime minister it became acceptable to mention that briefings happened and for them to be attributed to “Downing Street sources”.

Under Labour, Alastair Campbell’s ego meant that allegations of excess “spin” saw him attribute briefings to “the Prime Minister’s official spokesman”—that is, him.

Oddly the room where recently the giggling Malcolm Tuckers were videoed in was a failed attempt to mess with the lobby system.

They spent £2.6 million on a media bunker in Downing Street as an attempt to bring US style televised briefings so the government could control the information flow even more. A combination of press hostility and government and spin doctor infighting over what was the best way to lie to people killed the idea.

To misquote Humbert Wolfe, “You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God! the British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to as long as there is PR job on offer somewhere.”

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