″Sources Close to the Prime Minister” Under Siege by Some in the Press
LONDON (AP) _ The once sacrosanct arrangement that British government ministers and officials use to get their views published without being quoted is under attack from the very quarter it was set up to serve - the press.
With critics saying the arrangement, known as the ″lobby system,″ has become an insiders’ club that works against open government, the Guardian newspaper announced this week that it will break the rules and attribute briefings by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s press officer, Bernard Ingham, and his aides to ″Mrs. Thatcher’s spokesman.″
The Independent, a new daily to be launched Oct. 7, has refused from the outset to submit to the rules. Its political reporters boycott Ingham’s briefings.
The ″lobby,″ to which about 100 top political reporters of all the main British media belong, will hold an emergency meeting to decide what to do about Guardian editor Peter Preston’s instructions to his reporters to put Ingham’s briefings on the record after Parliament resumes Oct. 21.
″My own personal view is there is now such pressure for change that in the end Downing Street (the prime minister’s offices) will find it irresistible,″ said lobby chairwoman Julia Langdon, political correspondent for the mass- circulation Daily Mirror.
While Parliament is in session, Ingham, a blunt Yorkshireman much admired by Mrs. Thatcher and criticized by opposition leaders as too political and powerful for a civil servant, briefs the lobby correspondents twice a day.
He comments to American reporters in separate weekly sessions on the same basis.
The Associated Press and other American news organizations also do not attribute Ingham’s statements to him by name, but usually simply to British government sources.
Officially the Ingham briefings, held at the prime minister’s 10 Downing Street residence or the House of Commons, never take place.
What Ingham says is wrapped by the press, radio and television in phrases such as ″it is understood,″ ″Whitehall (the seat of government) feels,″ or, ″sources close to the prime minister say.″
It is basically the same as the U.S. tradition of background briefings in which officials talk to reporters on the condition that the information not be attributed to them by name or department.
But this is a much more formal, institutionalized system, and British journalists have been slower than their American counterparts to mount a campaign for more on-the-record briefings.
Opponents of the British system say it survives because it enables the government to spread self-serving stories or vilify opponents without taking responsibility, and because it makes journalists seem like well-informed insiders.
″I can’t honestly see why we alone of Western democracies should have a government spokesman who technically does not exist,″ Preston, whose newspaper takes a liberal, left-leaning line, said in a radio interview Thursday. ″The system is unaccountable.″
Defenders say the system produces information that might not otherwise emerge. They say reporters are free to dispute, ignore or check it.
Jonathan Fenby, an assistant editor at the Independent, which has been publishing dummy issues for the past two weeks, said its reporters have missed nothing by boycotting Ingham’s briefings.
″We don’t join in because basically we think mass non-attributable briefings end up by exerting pressure on the journalists there to report the news in a certain way which may be slanted and which they cannot attribute,″ said Fenby.
The Guardian on Thursday published the text of Preston’s letter informing Ingham of his decision. Preston wrote that the paper would refrain from attributing quotes to Ingham by name.
Ingham’s brief response was that since the lobby sets the rules, the lobby must deal with the Guardian’s change of policy.
The lobby was founded in 1885 when William Gladstone was prime minister. A year ago, opposition leaders switched to a policy of talking to lobby correspondents on the record, but Ingham has told the lobby he will not change his policy.