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January 3, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 8:46am

Lobby journalists raise ‘significant concerns’ over changes to daily Government briefings

By Freddy Mayhew

The group of political journalists reporting from Westminster, known as the Lobby, has raised concerns over Government changes to how it operates which are due to come into effect next week.

Boris Johnson’s administration has decided to move daily briefings with accredited reporters to Downing Street, as opposed to the Lobby room at the House of Commons where they are currently held.

The move also includes informal “huddles” – impromptu meetings that can be used to quickly clear up any confusion on the Government’s position – which take place in the Lower Reporter’s Gallery in Parliament.

Lobby briefings take place once in the morning and then again in the afternoon, the latter chaired by the Lobby chairman, except on Fridays when MPs are typically based in their constituencies.

The briefings are a chance for journalists to ask questions of the Government’s official spokesperson, currently James Slack, under an agreed embargo.

Holding them in the House of Commons has enabled journalists who want to cover afternoon proceedings in Parliament to also easily ask questions of the Government’s spokesperson.

There are 15 daily newspapers, seven Sunday newspapers, 12 news agencies and online-only news websites, three magazines, six news channels, and a number of local newspapers and foreign news outlets in the Lobby today.

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Number 10 has said the change of venue to Number 9 Downing Street, a five-minute walk from Parliament, will allow Lobby reporters to have more briefings from advisers and expert officials.

But in a message to journalists, Lobby chairman and Telegraph chief political correspondent Christopher Hope warned the change will make it harder for journalists to attend briefings, particularly those from smaller new outfits with only one or two accredited political reporters.

Hope said there were “significant concerns” about the fact the afternoon briefing would now “clash with meetings and hearings in Parliament in the afternoon when the House generally sits”.

He said the changes had been imposed without consultation on 20 December and were only discussed at a meeting of the Lobby correspondents’ committee yesterday.

Hope also raised concerns that journalists would not be able to take their mobile phones into the morning briefing at Downing Street, “which will mean that it is difficult to file accurately and promptly straight after it”.

Press Gazette understands that mobile phones are currently not allowed in the Downing Street meeting room. Not all journalists have shorthand.

There are also concerns that reporters will be held up by queues at the Downing Street gate, which welcomes invited guests for events and meetings, although Hope’s note to journalists said Number 10 had promised to station a press officer at the gate next week to assist journalists.

Hope said he was also concerned by the possibility that forcing journalists to access the Downing Street gate will allow the Government, or any future administration, “to refuse access to journalists it may not approve of”.

This, he said, would be “damaging to the freedom of the press”.

The Lobby committee has said it has no problem with holding the morning meeting at Downing Street as historically they have been in a Government building and even 10 Downing Street itself.

But it suggested holding the afternoon briefing and huddles in the Lobby room in the House of Commons “to provide for a more formal context for the meetings as a compromise”.

The Lobby committee set out its concerns in a letter to Number 10 comms director Lee Cain and has requested an urgent meeting with Number 10 discuss the changes.

A Number 10 spokesperson confirmed the changes but told Press Gazette they would not comment on operational matters.

It follows a testing election campaign for the UK news media during which Johnson snubbed some news outlets, including barring a Mirror journalist from his campaign battle bus, ducking an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil, and refusing to attend debates hosted by Channel 4.

The Conservative Party outlined a commitment to “support local and regional newspapers as vital pillars of communities and local democracy…” in its election manifesto, winning a landslide at the ballot box.

The Society of Editors, which represents senior editorial staff across the UK news media, said it is “certainly not against changes to the way in which journalists are given access to the heart of government”.

But added: “Such changes should only come about following consultation with those working at the sharp end of our lobby system.”

Society of Editors executive director Ian Murray added: “The government underscored its commitment to freedom of expression in the recent Queen’s speech and we would take this to mean a commitment to open government.

“There is still time for Number 10 to consult further with the lobby correspondents’ committee and its members to ensure a sensible new system can be put in place.”

Picture: Pixabay

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