No 10 to review lobby briefings

By Alex Stevenson

Downing Street’s press briefings are to be shaken up, it has been announced.

Six journalists and five members of staff in No 10 will form a working group to review the operation of briefings by the prime minister’s spokesman in a bid to modernise the system “in an increasingly fast-moving and online media world”.

politics.co.uk made history at the beginning of 2009 by receiving what is understood to be the first lobby pass awarded to an unaffiliated online political news publication.

Lobby briefings are given by the prime minister’s official spokesman (PMOS) and occur twice a day when parliament is sitting.

They act as a two-way process: journalists have the opportunity to question the PMOS on any matter relating to government, while Downing Street spin doctors are able to keep tabs on which issues and developments are attracting the attention of journalists.

The working group’s terms of reference are to review the current operation and working practices of lobby briefings; to consider how best to meet the demands of television and online media; and to make recommendations on how to provide a greater range of government contributions to lobby briefings.

The present PMOS, Simon Lewis, said: “This is an important and timely initiative and I am very much looking forward to working with colleagues in government and the lobby to propose changes which will enhance the role of the lobby whilst reflecting the realities of the modern political and media world.”

Jean Eaglesham of the Financial Times, who currently chairs the parliamentary lobby, said journalists had a “shared interest” with the government in ensuring the lobby remains “a cornerstone of political reporting”.

She added: “That’s why I am delighted that this review is taking place and that it will be an entirely collaborative effort.”

The working group will aim to produce recommended changes before Christmas, with the view of implementing them in the new year.

The lobby’s last major reform took place in February 2000 when Tony Blair’s head of communications Alistair Campbell made briefings on the record for the first time.

Previously they had been unattributable affairs which fostered the impression among those excluded from the process that lobby journalists were becoming excessively close to those in power.

Old hands in parliament’s press gallery say the new system, designed to open up the process, has made it much more difficult for political journalists to uncover the real developments within the Palace of Westminster.