Time to rewrite the rules of Lobby journalism?
We need greater scepticism from political journalists and a willingness to name officials who deliberately mislead the public, writes Raymond Snoddy
Peter Oborne’s decision not to renew his contract to write opinion pieces for the Daily Mail demonstrates unfortunate timing now that we are heading into a general election campaign.
Amongst the likely deluges of pro Boris Johnson propaganda in the tame reaches of the Tory press, his would have been a voice that carried with it strains of an unusual degree of integrity.
Whether he voluntarily resigned or not, Oborne was probably running out of road.
His article in OpenDemocracy earlier this year recanting on his support for Brexit and admitting that he might have made “a terrible mistake” must have triggered a sharp intake of breath in the senior editorial ranks of the Daily Mail.
His conversation was based on two main elements – what he now sees as the economic damage Brexit will cause and something he now concedes he did not sufficiently consider at the time: the dangers of stirring up renewed violence in Ireland.
Since his change of mind those dangers have been partly mitigated by the plan to keep Northern Ireland in the European single market.
It is not the first time that Oborne has demonstrated integrity.
He had the courage to resign as chief political editor of the Daily Telegraph for what he called “the fraud” it was perpetuating on its readers by its coverage – or more precisely its lack of coverage - of the affairs of the HSBC bank.
He signed his intent with an article in OpenDemocracy – clearly the website of choice for journalists to place articles their own publishers would never print.
In it he thought back to earlier days when the Daily Telegraph, now up for sale, was a byword for honest conservative news reporting and his grandfather Lt Col Tom Osborne DSO, churchwarden and leading light in the Petersfield Conservative Association.
The Lt Colonel had a special rack on his breakfast table and would read the Daily Telegraph carefully every morning over his bacon and egg, paying particular attention to the leaders.
Oborne has done it once again in the digital columns of OpenDemocracy, a charity which does not pay its contributors, by firing in all directions at distinguished members of the Lobby in both print and broadcasting.
The accusation is that Britain’s journalists have become part of Prime Minister Johnson’s “fake news machine.”
From the Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Times, to the BBC and ITV, they are carrying out the same role for Johnson as Fox News is for President Trump, Oborne believes.
There have always been anonymous Lobby briefings and of course the officials giving them have unashamedly put forward the Government’s point of view.
Sometimes it was done aggressively as in the case of Mrs Thatcher’s communications guru Sir Bernard Ingham, although the spin was always a long way short of lying.
It was a semi-secretive process and Lobby members could never reveal who was giving the briefing. It served both sides with the Government of the day getting its point of view across and journalists trooping in to be spoon-fed stories.
There was also the very useful Friday afternoon Lobby briefing for Sunday newspaper journalists who might pick up a line or two or even a splash.
For many years Peter Oborne was part of such a system but his allegation now is that something fundamental has changed.
The official briefing team, many of them from the Leave campaign which did not win many plaudits for honesty, are accused of dishing out falsehoods which are then lapped up by uncritical journalists.
For some, Oborne argues, they are prepared to pay a heavy price for access while in the case of others it’s “sheer laziness.”
The columnist cites a number of stories to bolster his case.
One was a splash in the Mail on Sunday claiming that the government was working on an investigation into whether Dominic Grieve, Oliver Letwin and Hilary Benn were involved with foreign powers and financing in their attempts to produce legislation to block a No Deal Brexit.
The story was enthusiastically followed up the next day by the national press. There was no investigation and the story was ludicrous but has never been retracted.
Another was a story claiming that it was “utterly dishonest” for Amber Rudd, former Work and Pensions Secretary, to say the Attorney General’s legal advice on prorogation of Parliament had been withheld from her.
Rudd, who is now leaving Parliament, claims, surely believably, that the reason for her resignation had been the Government’s repeated refusal to allow her to see the full advice.
Yet a “government source” was, in affect, allowed to call her a liar.
Then there was the direct lie that the Yellowhammer report on the short-term impact of No-Deal Brexit was an old document when it simply wasn’t.
Perhaps the most telling example is what happened in the Boris Johnson three-letter trick to the EU.
There was Downing Street speculation that Number 10 had found a way round having to implement the Benn Act requiring an extension, by sending one letter to comply with the law and others countermanding the original – a manoeuvre of dubious legal significance.
As Oborne argues, the real story that Saturday night was that Johnson had lost and had been forced to comply with the Benn requirement after repeatedly saying he would not do so.
Journalists and broadcasters accepted the Downing Street briefing that Johnson had managed to stick two fingers up to the Benn Act.
As George Parker of the Financial Times noted: “Brilliant work by the @BorisJohnson press team last night, turning a Commons defeat and the PM having to ask for a Brexit delay into front page headlines about his defiant “three letter trick.”
The journalists involved have defended themselves against what Oborne calls “client journalism” and there is a fine line between being misled and accurately reporting what is being said.
The Dominic Cummings press operation does seem unusually blatant and cares little whether facts or falsehoods are being disseminated.
The only antidote is greater scepticism from political journalists and a willingness to break the vow of masonic silence by naming those officials who wilfully and deliberately mislead journalists and the public.
In the meantime the pressing need is for Peter Oborne to find a more congenial perch for his work, perhaps on The Times?