Into the Lobby

Day 8 on the UK gov. desk at Bloomberg and it’s time to play with the big fish: I’m sent to Westminster to join the ‘lobby’ (read ‘the hardened, cynical political hacks who ghost around Parliament’) and cover the last PMQs before the summer recess. Reflections on the day.

The Westminster daily news cycle has a certain rhythm. Cameron’s spokeswoman Helen Bowers kicks it off with a briefing to the lobby on the government’s agenda at 11am: who the PM’s meeting, statements by ministers, bills being presented in the House etc. The hacks pile into a tiny room high up in the labyrinth that is the Palace of Westminster and scribble away in shorthand. We Bloomberg journalists have an instant chat open with our editor, ready to fire out news headlines if any stories break.

Morning lobby over, the journalists then trudge back through the Westminster maze to the press corridor overlooking Parliament Square and rattle off updates to their editors. Every 15 minutes, Big Ben chimes patriotically.

Surprisingly, I see a lot of cooperation between writers in the lobby. The Daily Mail, The Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The FT – all have offices on the same corridor and their hacks intermingle, discussing plans for the day. What are you working on? Did you hear about so-and-so? There’s a lot of camaraderie and looking out for each other. ‘Technically the other journalists are your rivals but the real enemy is the news desk,’ one reporter tells me.

12 o clock. I head down to the chamber for PMQs with a parliamentary sketch-writer. ‘I get to just write jokes,’ he says. I notice a total lack of deference of the hacks towards the politicians. At PMQs they line the rows of the upper gallery, sniggering, raising eyebrows, laughing at the spin. In the press corridor they’re merciless: isn’t so-and-so such an idiot! ‘Minister X was at Lynton Crosby’s party last night, roaring drunk. A minister with a drinking problem, just what we need!’ Their copy may be clean but that’s where it ends. These acerbic hacks have seen it all.

PMQs. I’ve watched it umpteen times on telly but found it remarkable how different it is live. For a start, the noise in the chamber is staggering. The TV microphones don’t do it justice. I could never understand why Speaker Bercow so regularly intervened to tell MPs to be quiet, but now it makes sense. A wall of Tory chuntering would berate Harman’s questions, forcing her to raise her voice. Cameron’s cheerleading sound bites would be followed by a booming ‘hear hear’. The atmosphere in the chamber is very tense as hundreds of sharp-witted minds listen intently for a cock-up, a concession, a mistake. It’s not politics. It’s gladiatorial theatre.

Early afternoon sees Theresa May making a statement in the House about whether London police can use water cannons. She rules they can’t, meaning egg on the face for Boris Johnson who bought 3 for £220k secondhand last year. I file a story on it and break my Westminster reporting duck.

Now afternoon lobby with Helen at 3:45pm. We’re back in the heavens of Westminster and this time BBC deputy political editor James Landale and Sky political editor Faisal Islam join us. As we patiently wait I desperately try to pretend I’m not totally freaking out about being metres away from the hack superstars. There’s something surreal about looking into the eyes of someone you normally see talking at you out of a TV screen. It’s like finally meeting Big Brother.

I take heart to see Faisal is not writing in shorthand, instead recording Helen’s statement on his iPad whilst typing notes. A friend once told me I’d never need shorthand in modern journalism, advice I’d been rueing all day as the hacks around me blitzed out 120 words per minute with perfect accuracy. So it was good to see Sky’s top man joining me with the trusty audio recorder.

And that’s it: Helen wishes the lobby well for the summer and we go back to our office to line up some stories for overnight. Sometimes the government releases stuff on embargo, meaning the press can look at it and write their copy, but can’t publish until a certain time, such as the next morning. That was my day at Westminster, and I really, really hope it isn’t the last.

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