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Read this: Westminster's Secrets and Lies

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Westminster's Secrets and Lies…

BBC sounds music Radio podcasts from BBC Radio 4 The Ultimate insider's with privileged access to the Houses of Parliament and the people running the country.

Do they use their roles to hold the powerful to account or is political reporting an opaque and cosy Club that sometimes fails democracy recording this program in the BBC marquee at the hay festival hundreds of miles away from London's corridors of power so we're hoping the combination of distance and the Fresh Paris will induce our panel to reveal how it really works Caroline Wheeler is political editor at the Sunday Times Eleni career is Deputy editor of politico, London PlayBook newsletter economist at the I newspaper PJ Harvey is a former journalist and was director of communications at 10 Downing Street in the final months of Boris Johnson's government.

And I want to dive straight in with you in done because very helpful Ian has just written a book called how Westminster my it doesn't and I think you spoke to more than 100 ministers MPs civil servants and journalist for the book so when it comes to media coverage, what are the major problems that you've identified those almost too many to list we can start with stonewalling so every morning and afternoon, but this will join the sit for the lobby with Prime Minister spokesperson.

90% of those questions should be met by a statement that reveals absolutely nothing at all.

Well intended to sound like it's important information that you can attack that Rock from a variety of angles and the statement will stay exactly the same nothing 10% of the time when you're lucky as a chink of light.

There's a slight discrepancy in the date in the word in the name and then John little huntapac that we very effective in extracting the information.

But I'm being generous by saying that even 10% of the time I have problems with the fact that at the moment that a policy is passed it essentially ceases to exist for the Way It Should Have goes out there into the world of things that already happened.

So what how effective one Michael Gove reforms to education what's going on with Universal Credit these things sort of get lost once they've left that sort of the hothouse of political decision-making somebody who is in the lobby.

Let's get into the detail you it's the place where the press meet the government have known as the lobby is after a run in Parliament I think when we talk about the lobby, what exactly do we mean? I'm in mentioned.

You know too.

I think they were too official on the record off camera briefings everyday.

Yes, I think more significantly lower during this also have a path that allows us to roam around the parliamentary state which gives us access to the politicians for there and peas peers and their advisers.

Houses to speak to them and get to know them and try and get them to tell us the things that the government want to us and there is certain conventions that go with that aren't there if you could explain them in terms of when you speak to an MP absolutely in general the convention is that when you speak to somebody in Parliament as a dog eat unless you can use information that they give you but without naming them unless explicitly told you this is a comment.

I'm giving you on the record do anything they say to you can use is that right in general.

Yes, that's why they might say to you.

This is not for you, but I'm approaching this information to you.

I mean that's unusual if you're saying to me unless you know you can kind of acceptance to find a way of using it may be able to confirm.

It is often way of doing that was nothing there.

They have been examples where people have told me bits of information and said you absolutely cannot use this you cannot use this because only one other person knows where this information has come from and then.

If you reveal it, it will become extremely apparent and obvious to your sources and that can sometimes be a real you know burning a hole in your pocket.

You know you've got this incredible nugget of information, but you've been told not to use it again before I bring it so I think I think he said earlier than huntapac.

It is there a sense that because the lobby does Montana pack out potentially together scalp in the end.

That's what you're about.

I think there's a certain amount of that and that's only if you look at the way in which kind of political journalist career as a kind of judged often.

We have what kind of Awards at the end of the at the end of the year that you've got you know you know Pippa Crerar at the Guardian has won.

I can't remember she told me last night was like 12-week scan the which I'm still get I will have something to say about outside and say yesterday.

It's absolutely.

Revealing things people don't want you to know for me and I know this is going to sound so strange coming from from my perspective the stories that I'm always most proud of myself are the stories where you check something where do something good where you influence something which you know the Pride of my life and my career has been working on the contaminated blood scandal and helping to bring about the public enquiry and the me those of the stories that I remember much more than necessarily causing a kind of weekend have trouble for the prime minister, although obviously you know if that's great spot for us as well.

Go geon-han.

People listening.

Will that you read a newspaper and you'll see a phrase like sources close to the prime minister a Downing Street source or senior government sources when you read those.

Do you know who they are can you die? Can you decode those euphemisms for US mean sometimes you can just tell it to the person talking friends closest of Dominic Cummings you know what I have an uncanny resemblance.

The funniest thing that can happen if somebody tells you something and then you'll see somebody else write up and you know all I know exactly who that is because I heard the same thing from that same person singing I was fine quite difficult is there some Cabinet ministers and some ministers and some people in Portugal have very distinctive voices if you think about for example Jacob rees-mogg, I mean the idea of time to you know quote Jacob rees-mogg off record quite difficult because the language that he uses immediately identifies him and I can think of numerous other examples like that.

So you know it's not always straightforward doing that, but it again it's a way of building Trust with your with your contacts that you can protect them and yes, we do use a variety of different sources government insiders normally a member of the government.

That's not a name cabinet minister of friends of is usually either the individual themselves especially advisor, you know the kind of things that we work alongside.

We try to give you a call.

As you know who's giving us that information largely, so you will understand that it's it's not just made up.

I mean that's always the danger of using these quotes and another trip is that people just think that you've spoken to you know the cleaner or you know if somebody that randomly bumped into him portcullis.

House is told you juicy nugget.


That's bringing.

I'm sure he's wearing to go now after all bringing keto Harry because you presumably as I said off from work the Downing Street source that was quoted you a Boris Johnson's director of communications during his last month and down the street and presumably managing stories like this on prime minister's barbers your job.

What is your reaction to what's being said so far first of all the cleaner would be a really really good security guard.

They would be far better sources than most the people the most generous talk to the outside that I have still spend far more time as a journalist and I have not being a journalist and so I applaud the noble profession.

Holding the rich and Mighty to account.

I think you've mentioned to specific values of journalism or or away the journey is improvised it does help get things that have changed and it does help resolve Rose within government.

We're genuinely people are intending the best their motivations nine times out of ten and Noble for this a genuine.

I should use and they don't know what the right thing to do is and to see that articulating on front pages Sunday Times sometimes just tips over the balance but my view and this this this something I arrived at when I was a member of the law on the other side and felt it even more strongly last year's that the current system says everybody appallingly.

It's an excruciating waste of time for the first time and Number 10 and 80% of the time preparing detailed briefings to sort of go and face the lobby not me not the person who's been in the room talking directly to the prime minister, but via a courier service.

To then is at the mercy of these Merciless Hounds asking questions to which he probably does not know the answer because nobody knows the answers just happened.

What happened to be deliberate that he doesn't have to answer he was she and then it's a waste of time because he doesn't turn up because there's something to be announce he has to face the pack twice a day for at least half an hour.

Just can't write.

I think the idea that buildings talk and hands up at the BBC years ago.

I used to write Downing Street says Downing Street doesn't say anything that is an inanimate object number 10.

Is is a number it's an address it doesn't talk it doesn't have used it doesn't take decisions and one of the things that you know that does is obscured the line of account.

It makes things more a cake if reduces the accountability and one of things that I wanted to do had the government that I joined lasted a little longer than it.

Had I would have a bowl.

At least one of the daily lobby things straight away in September and I sat down straight to the public.

That's what I wanted and most probably moved to A Whiter style spokesman, is the public entities decide whether they've been shifty or whether they've been helpful and the lobbying disingenuous, but the main thing for me and has a preoccupation boris.johnson.age agree to this and for long enough after the agreed to this the ministers would be forced to do covid style presentations to a room full of journalists on camera if it's good enough for covid.

Why is he not good enough? Tell me why shouldn't the person who's in charge of international trade name you know nailing down trade deals working out which companies which businesses which Industries may benefit from them? Why they may be forced to come and present dad and deal with the questions as they never are most of them.

I just want to go back to your time in Downing Street back to 2021 when you were appointed.

What was Boris Johnson speech.

It was just wanted the job, but what did he say to you? It was kind of irresistible in one I did think is that he was extraordinarily appallingly interserve buy some contemptuous people should have never anyone public like that name because we're on the BBC but I did think that was good people around him and as part of a team that came in he could have been the kind of Prime Minister that he was as Mayor of London which was which is popular and got a lot that was after the party gate story and broke in the Sue grey report was coming your boss was definitely on the right time.

Did you really believe you could turn things around yes because in the end partygate.

You know there was a mad conspiracy to not explain a lot of basic facts the public about partygate and we're knocking knocking to do it here's one of them.

But there's another site with and I do recommend my podcast unprecedented deserve all you can decide that is a little bit money when said and I should at least be put in perspective because there were other things last year more important the drinking another 10 just in terms of your job and what it entailed briefing Janet you weren't obviously doing this lobby briefing because that as you say as it is a career civil servant and sometimes.

It's bad.

I think but your breathing jealous.

Will you actively misleading that is that part of the job and from having been ages since I've always thought you can only live once because if you lie once nobody will ever trust you again and knowing that in the job.

I was in if I miss leisure journeys.

It's embarrassing for them.

They'll get into trouble with they said they will hate me and I never trust me again your currency is that you have integrity and I think they're having been the other side of fence.

Turn left in the lobby that hopefully meant that I was just stood by me and misleading I suppose obfuscating or not quite giving all the to sort of describe behave national when you don't know the answer for the answer is not clear or you haven't clarified with a person at the heart of this where they've been fired or not.

You do not just because the journalist asked you to yes, I was going to get fighting and now he doesn't know yet because you say the prime minister's considering is her date so even if you know he's decided to fire him.

There's a noble and it's not lying I miss leading for Ashley doing things properly and that's what we tried to do with Chris pincher without doing that was to have some sort of due process before we just give him to the lynch mob.

Ok you 3commas man was Gita hari?

Adaptor kit a job and so we did have to put a lot of things to him some of which were at wild and possibly not always accurately true and he knock them down but genuinely when there was something in it.

He did fairly respond to us in a way that others have and sadly I think he's absolutely correct.

I once it's absolutely curtains.

Have you been lied to yes? I think I have yeah, and I find it very difficult to deal with people that have done it because it really is it you know if you don't want to answer question and this obviously haven't quite a lot.

You know I think it's a respectable thing to say to somebody.

I'm sorry I can't help you with that.

I'm sorry.

I can't help you have to ask somebody else because then you maintain that relationship like the standard of truth-telling in the political system of this country is in Decline and then we can say that you know partygate was very very.

Story with all this new and it doesn't look very complex.

We have I going I didn't go to any parties and then we see the photos of the parties.

I don't need to be pyro to find that you know very difficult scenario, so it is and I think a lot of that was today specifically with Boris Johnson administration.

I don't think you could have necessarily said the same thing about Theresa May there was a real breakdown in the seriousness of government the accuracy that you can expect to politicians.

It's a cultural thing, but it has completed without got to have not to have two of these off camera on the record briefings for journalists somebody who does sometimes go to them.

They do tend to be a voice of time for journalists and I think I actually party.

I mean you didn't really say this directly but I think it's true that part of number 10s job part of them politicians advisors job is to

Damaging stories from being published and definitely when he was a number 10 his job will have you been about trying to ensure that damage during story about restaurants and that is what you do when your spend on her so am I definitely am and I dealt with detail and stories that he definitely took all that is really in the morning.

Is that I'd like to think I have done consistently on this side of fence is the term I would steer you away from that so if you can't actually say because something hasn't been concluded or prove beyond reasonable doubt to reach the threshold where you can say that I would say I'm not telling you that you're wrong, but I would steer you away from asbestos this story I really

Not just because you know I don't want to damaging story for the government because I do want you to mess up as a as a journalist and has a colleague and so that is part of it as well.

I think as for partygate.

I see on that in response.

That is if we certainly have glasses of wine on the table in front of us here now.

Would that make this? What would we cease to be at the side of Hay-on-Wye gorgeous of recording a programme for the BBC what is sunny become a party because there's wine on the table people acting like we didn't live through those periods ourselves like we were there.

We knew what we were allowed to do that one more dreaming on his is on press conference.

It's ok.

I've got a far better sort of attitude to take that get somewhere but the main thing you could do to improve the way we communicate with which honest is the return of a press office that actually functions you don't have to go back to the period of the maid.

You would have Jonas jealous from hostile newspaper The Guardian talking to Michael Howard at Home Secretary for instance.

They would expect time with Michael Howard he would give time to hostel Janice when you called I press office they can tell you something about the politics going through you tried calling up and press office now as a journalist they can you put down an email for me so I can send it to a media special advisor, so they can be a whether there's a problem coming and it doesn't even work for government for it to be that way if I could explain things worse they won't actually get more sympathetic ideas for pumpkin mentality and they were going to say I think all of you can see it.

That is so more about 4 months after I arrived and in the 4 years before essentially you say that a good thing to him.

So he had done princess Good Morning Britain for 6-years six years not talking to the audience that watch Good Morning Britain which without overgeneralizing of stereotyping.

Play proportion would likely to be working class people in the so-called red wall seats so for me a glaring example of a lack of accountability and no matter how many times a civil servant will answer my phone call that is not providing the accountability of putting the prime minister at the mercy of Susanna Reid turned out to be Merciless as it happens if that was you know we did the Range and the Range you know and I was very clear by the city hall as well that the professional press office answers the calls from every organization whether that actually hostile or not that was not the mentality before I got there and then any career from Bob politico.

Is there a problem with groupthink the lobby with a story and every please hunting it down as a pack and actually might be missing the good stories because you're looking at that one.

Sample for election directories the majority in 2017 that was just completely honest better at the start of the campaign every thought she was going to win a massive authority and the questions that last time were based on that you know well founded assumption on the basis of the polls, but it did mean that nobody was prepared for what happened and so yes that was an example of groupthink.

I guess just a reminder for people doing right now.

You are listening to a special recording of the media show we are recording it at the hay festival on Friday and then don't one of the issues people talk about when you talk about your book is client journalism political and politicians are in this relationship, but doesn't necessarily healthy to do with the Press Office and The Rise of the Media's pads that the media special advisers sort of get out from underneath of the entirety of the White Horse system, are you can become quite hooked on to that particular route of information you can rely on and extensively so if you think back.

Hardcastle the Dominic Cummings incident have you look at Twitter accounts of senior political Correspondents during this first two or three days many of them when noticeably very silent and the reason that you're very sad.

It's because they become overly reliant on one source of information.

They couldn't forward to Birmingham this is a danger when you have to have it as a journalist in yourself.

You can't regulate this problem.

You can't get out that way I have to have your own sense of integrity of making sure that you navigate these really quite complicated arrangements as carefully as possible, but the second thing we can do is we can get rid of Media's bad to make sure that is as it should be flowing through departmental processes rather than 23rd humanities students from the other way round.

Did you have favourite journalists that you would give stories too well, that's a lot of your analysis, but but I disagree on the on on the media bad thing because what you have intermediate bad is somebody who is a

Trusted confidante of the minister and the chances of the minister himself or herself talking about genesis.lib because they have an awful Elsa and the press office can actually put forward of Sir process that looks cleaner to you, but they will not be in intimate confidence of that minister.

So depends where you want process or that you want the content that is for acentic from somebody who that minister Trust so that's the only place.

I agree with their analysis on just about the rest of the floors of system was going to say 11 moment from when I was a lobby journalists and I bought hours of Jack Straw when he's Foreign Secretary under Tony Blair trying to explain whether they would be a new second un resolution to justify or two at least give legal the war in Iraq something that I just agreed with violently and it made me love Tony Blair's government at the time, but I thought was straight but you still didn't know at the end.

Hours of questioning on camera, what is it was telling him so I took advantage of the access to Lychee the corridors of power to follow him down the corridor I said you mind just I just hope I'm going to be asked you think is going to happen and I just want you to inform my judgement.

He said here follow me and the next thing is into the toilet and the next thing is at the original is literally one hand I didn't want to look where was you was talking to me over his shoulder and so my mother last me that bit you know you do you report it? So he said this and then this is what he thinks going to happen get her on what you based at I said well the last time.

I was asked for a judgement call speaking to the foreign secretary at the urinal in the opportunity corridor, so some of that's not the you want your conversations always get the rhino, but some of that is is something that informed judgements allows Cena correspondence to be more valuable to the public because they have gone to the horses mouth that information.

Urinal with their which is a problem.

I know there are she didn't finish making the best store in the end on a slightly more positive note potentially you one thing that you think would improve reporting of Westminster hard thing to ask and his entire book but a lot of the book is about that, but have you got something that you would say would make a difference so we haven't discussed already.

I would really like to see from readers is a form of literacy about what is an indication of quality and political story and the test you can have as you will see to buy lines on the story two names on the story.

What are them in the lobby fine sleeping the political system and the other one from back in the office and expert.

Is home Affairs education housing foreign policy the connection you make sure that they're not just being fed something that ultimately doesn't stand up to any kind of scrutiny that two lines on the story is your watermark equality and political journalism improving that a bit more of a collectively agreed system by which we for two people and have certain terms in their situation.

That would be better because at the moment.

I mean sometimes you can read a story and that you know it will look like you spoke more people than that you have because of the way that they've been described and the kind of included I think there's one problem the way that obscures things.

I think can really be improved keto.

I think you go back to the constitution the people elected government that is led by the person.

Who is the leader of the largest party and he or she appointment is who act in the name of the Crown that's weird.

Decision-making lies that where the direct route to the mandate given by the people lies and therefore the best system possible is the system for me that maximises access of the public via good journalist not all of them in the lobby to Minister's who were directly accountable who are taking decisions and the more things you put in between the minister in the public the less accountable the system will be the last one thing that the improved political reporter.

I'm sure yours.

Can't be improved, but I think one of the things I really like is diversity in the lobby and actually that really reflects how we report politics.

I'm chair of the women's long many women are in the women's well.

We actually went up we have we got about 50.

It's also about class division.

I think I'm writing saying I'm probably the only state educated non, Oxbridge political editor in the lobby and also just in terms of ethnic diversity, I mean.

Think of probably literally no more than one hand of that come from that background that serve in the lobby, and I think that's really really important because I do think it's would have it is the way you think about politics cost of living for example if everybody is you know from a middle-class male perspective and you know doing quite nice if themselves.

Thank you.

They're not going to see those in the way that you props would if you came from different background that is a call to arms much appreciated here and hey but I'm afraid that is all we got time for that.

Thank you to you all to Caroline on the Sunday Times from PlayBook in dance from the I newspaper with his book out for my number 10 press chief also with a podcast out of course audience hearing marvellous BBC tent BBC Marquis and everybody listening.

We will be back next week in our usual studio but for now from the hay festival goodbye.

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