by Atul Hatwal
Since 1884 the cosy club of the lobby has shaped political journalism in Britain. With privileged access to MPs in the lobby outside the Commons’ chamber and a remit to report politicians’ views on “lobby terms,” (e.g. without naming the source), their judgement on what merits reporting and how it is written, frames the political debate.
However, for such an influential institution, relatively little is known about its members. For most other parts of Britain’s governing elite, such as MPs or the judiciary, there is a basic level of transparency. The gender balance and proportion from minority communities are a matter of public knowledge and debate.
But not with the lobby.
Uncut has analysed the membership of this august body to see how it measures up. The results paint a depressingly familiar picture.
In all, there are 155 accredited members of the lobby. Out of this total, 33 or 21% are women and just 7 or 5% come from minority communities.
For minorities, the reality is a little worse than even the raw numbers suggest. Only 5 of the 7 lobby journalists are employed by the types of news organisation to which aspirants will routinely apply in the hope of one day receiving the honour of a lobby pass.
Take a bow Rajeev Syal, the Guardian and Observer’s Whitehall correspondent, Samana Haq, ITN’s Westminster news editor, John Piennar, 5 Live’s chief political correspondent, Kiran Stacey political correspondent of the FT and Anne Alexander, Daybreak’s politics producer. You are the lucky ones.
Team diversity is completed by Adel Darwish, a longtime lobby hand now plying his trade for Middle East News, and Ahmed Versi who edits and publishes the Muslim News.
If the lobby looked like the country there would be over double the number of women journalists and three times as many from minority communities.
This institution has the dubious distinction of being about as representative than the House of Commons on which it reports where 23% of the MPs are women and 4% are from an ethnic minority.
The situation remains largely the same when looking at the parliamentary press gallery.
Gallery journalists only have access to the press gallery in the Commons and Lords and traditionally have had a slightly different remit to the lobby. Their focus is more on reporting proceedings rather than securing exclusives by talking to MPs. Quentin Letts neatly described the difference in a submission to Leveson, although for many journalists, in practice, the distinction between lobby and gallery is increasingly blurred.
There are 408 journalists who have parliamentary passes that give access to the gallery (including the lobby contingent) with 108 or 26% women and 15 or 4% from minority communities.
Two problems flow from the uniformity of Britain’s political journalists.
First, their background will inform what they feel is important and should be reported. The narrower the background, the narrower the reporting.
It is certainly not the case that a journalist’s news values will be wholly determined by race or gender. We all have free choice, distinct beliefs, and someone’s class and the culture of their work place both have a major influence on how they work.
But, being a woman or from an ethnic minority is clearly different to being a white man and will engender some different priorities. The homogeneity of the pool of parliamentary journalists means these will inevitably be under-represented in the reporting of our political news.
Second, Uncut’s analysis suggests that there is a problem with equalities in our media organisations. No doubt all will have equalities policies and claim they are fully committed to their implementation. But, out of the hundreds of political journalists employed by the different organisations, are only 5 from minority communities good enough to be in the lobby? Really?
And are female political journalists under-represented by over half in the lobby because they are either not good enough or don’t want to work at the top of their profession?
It’s easy to explain away individual hiring decisions but when looking at the choices made across hundreds of appointments by dozens of different employers, the pattern is inescapable.
Journalism is no different to law or politics in suffering from such systematic under-representation of women and minorities. But while action is being taken in these areas, or is at least being debated, for the lobby, it is not even an issue for public discussion.
During the debate on press regulation, one of the most prominent arguments made by members of the press in their opposition to statutory regulation was that the media have a unique role in safeguarding our democracy. There is a lot of truth in this. Which makes it all the more important that the people who define the news we receive are more representative of the country that they serve.
Note: this article was changed 1230 20/12 to update the nos of lobby correspondents from minority backgrounds from 5 to 7
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut