The gentleman's club which leads to poor reporting
Peter Preston writes an excellent article in today's Observer questioning how the MPs' expenses scandal could have gone on for so long under the noses of the lobby correspondents which newspapers pay to cover Parliament full-time.
Disclosure: the Leicester Mercury has a lobby correspondent. We share him with Northcliffe's other Midlands titles (including Nottingham and Derby). He is based full-time in the Houses of Parliament, but works under the direction of the local Editors, including me.
Preston asks: 'Didn't anyone, updating his flipping contacts list, ask why Hazel Blears was always on the move? Why the chancellor's home telephone number kept changing? How Hon Members on £64,000 a year could afford to clear their moats, build duck islands or tackle dry rot 100 miles from Luton?'
Further down he says: 'They're expert, self-regulated members of one gentlemen's club, monitoring another one. They need to cultivate sources, buy drinks and keep onside to keep the chat coming. They are part of the institution, in a way.'
And then: 'But editors back at their desks are surely entitled to ask themselves a few questions now. Does the lobby - its briefings, its access, its exclusivities - still deliver the goods I need? If everything else is changing, can the snug set-up that missed the story be left untouched? '
He has a point. And I intend to ask the questions.
But it is a difficult situation and one that journalists come across all the time - striking the balance between having a relationship that allows mutual trust and access to 'exclusive' stories with the need to be detached enough to ask the difficult question or report the fact that will obviously upset and anger your 'contact'.
The lobby is not the only place where this issue exists.
Take football reporting. The Mercury's long-serving football writer Bill Anderson has just retired. When we reported this in the paper - and online - readers reacted by wishing Bill luck in his retirement, but rather harshly (in my opinion) criticising him for his closeness to the club. Even Bill recognised that supporters often felt he had been at a different game from them. But Bill probably spent more time with the club than he spent in the office of the Mercury and, inevitably, if you spend that much time with people, you build a relationship, even friendship. It is never easy to be very critical of friends and it is even more difficult to be critical in public. What is the alternative? The football writer relies on contact with players, the manager and the club and knows that it will take little to upset that relationship, leaving him out in the cold with nobody to talk to. It's easy for the Sun to parachute somebody into Leicester, be as critical as they like about the club, and then disappear back to London without having to care about the fact that they might want to ask about team news or transfers the next day. Many of our readers have a seemingly insatiable appetite for news about Leicester City and our football writer is expected to find stories every day. Yes, every day. Even in the summer when all the players and the manager are away on holiday. How easy is that if you don't have their mobile phone numbers?
Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to defend this sort of journalism, I'm just explaining why I think it happens.
Personally, I think it is about the relationship you build with your contacts. I think you have to have the discussion with them about 'bad' news and why you will report it. My own experience is that most people understand this and the more you talk about it, the easier it is to get through difficult issues.
In the short time that I have been in Leicester, I've been impressed with the level of partnership in the city, between public and private sector and between both of these and the various faith organisations - it's clearly a big part of what makes the city tick and I wouldn't want to do anything to undermine it. But I've also expressed some concern about what I see as a lack of scrutiny, about how many decisions are made behind closed doors and are not seen by the public until they have been carefully sanitised and wrapped up in neat little packages, with everyone sharing the same point of view. It makes me uneasy.
So, the question posed by Peter Preston needs asking not just about our lobby correspondent, but about all our reporters. And me.