In 2004, the parliamentary intelligence and security committee, the only independent body with powers to call the agencies to account, announced that it planned to hold an inquiry into the relationship between the spooks and the fourth estate, suggesting it was time for a wide-ranging debate. In the event, few journalists offered to give evidence, and the committee’s conclusions, published in its 2005 annual report, were disappointingly bland: “The government is trying to balance the need to inform people about issues that affect them, such as the terrorist threat to the UK, whilst still protecting the agencies’ work. This is a difficult balance, which requires further thought.” Indeed, it does.
Twenty years ago, the Independent, led by its now much-missed political editor, the late Tony Bevins, began a campaign to reform the Westminster lobby by withdrawing from the twice-daily briefings to correspondents by the then prime minister’s spokesman, the doughty Bernard Ingham. Since then, political reporting has changed beyond recognition. When Labour came to power in 1997, Alastair Campbell’s comments on behalf of Tony Blair became attributable to “the prime minister’s spokesman” and, eventually, to him and his successors by name. But in 1987 the lobby rules were essentially the same as those that govern briefings from MI5 and MI6 today. Like them, lobby meetings were then not merely off the record, but deniable, and those who broke the rules risked expulsion from future sessions – so making it impossible, it was believed, for transgressors to do their jobs (though Bevins and his colleagues soon demonstrated otherwise).
The old system’s drawbacks had long seemed obvious, and were often canvassed, especially in magazines such as this. The lobby rules were a licence to manipulate coverage and a way of settling political scores, a game in which journalists and voters held few cards. “Lobbies of all kinds are a conspiracy against the customer, the reader,” says Peter Preston, who as editor of the Guardian also campaigned for reform. “They enable the reporter to say, ‘Look how clever I am. I’ve got this amazing source, but I’m not going to tell you who it is, so you’re just going to have to trust me.’ The trouble is, the in formation may well not be trustworthy at all – from either a prime ministerial spokesman or MI6.”
By definition, a reporter cannot publicly question information from a deniable briefing. They must swallow it whole, or not at all. As Andreas Whittam Smith, the Independent‘s editor when its campaign began, pointed out in an article he wrote looking back in 2002, the old lobby rules tended “to enforce a consensus”. This suited everyone: while the PM’s spokesman got his message out unmodified, “When a repor ter writes along the same lines as everybody else, he or she cannot be blamed if things turn out differently.” Unfortunately, he noted, “Reporters as a group are often completely wrong.” As spies can be…