29 JANUARY 1965, Page 14

The Press

SIR,—It seems fashionable at the moment to deni- grate the 'lobby system' of collecting political news, but Mr. Booker's remarks last week can hardly

pass without some comment from a lobby journalist.

First, he claims the system makes for vagueness in reporting--:-'It is suggested in ministerial circles that . . .' and so on. I agree this is an irritating style, and the popular papers usually manage to avoid it anyway. But, style apart, is Mr. Booker seriously suggesting that political journalists should not relay information without giving its exact source? Surely journalists in all fields have a duty to protect their sources?

Much of this demand for everything 'on the record' springs from a misunderstanding of the political process. There is a big difference between the thinking of individual ministers, and an eventual Cabinet derision. Unless sources are protected, vir- tually no information on ministerial thinking would ever reach the press. After all, no minister will commit himself publicly on a specific issue in ad- vance, unless he is prepared to resign over it. Some do not do so even then—as you, Mr. Editor, should know.

A similar gap exists between the thinking of a backbench MP and official party policy. If back- benchers could not speak freely to lobby correspon- dents, most internal party pressures would go un- reported.

But Mr. Booker's most serious allegation is that the lobby system is used as a form of censorship, trivial information being offered in return for a gag on the important stuff. May 1 say I cannot recall a single instance of lobby correspondents being used to suppress information. What happens in other specialist groups of journalists I do not know—significantly, both Mr. Booker's examples came from outside the parliamentary lobby.

In fact, the lobby system in Parliament is a tre- mendous barrier to 'news management,' in its -most sinister sense. Those who attack it should say what %they would put in its place. A system by which all political news came from carefully staged, on- the-record press conferences, or from handouts written by civil servants? Heaven forbid! The lobby system works because it puts the press in close and daily contact with the real source of political news—the politicians—on terms which ensure that the news can be freely given.

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