You have given me two tasks today—first to express thanks on behalf of your guests and second to propose a toast to the Lobby.
I am sure all your many and distinguished guests share my deep appreciation for asking us to join you in your centenary celebrations and for making this such an enjoyable Parliamentary and political reunion.
The fact that within the hour this occasion will seem in retrospect rather like [end p1] Christmas in the trenches makes it all the more a moment to be savoured. We thank you and the Inland Revenue most warmly for your generous hospitality.
I would also like to add our congratulations to our Chairman on his recognition in the New Year Honours. To be elected centenary chairman of the Parliamentary Press Gallery and then centenary chairman of the Parliamentary Lobby Journalists is indeed an [end p2] overwhelming vote of confidence by his peers. We come here for many reasons—you and your chaplain have added one. Save our Souls.
Typically, however, he has underplayed the significance of this luncheon. It is, in fact, the first time that the Fourth Estate has avowed its Secret Service. Today the organisation that never was—well its nice to know these days that something's secret—is after a century without a notebook at worst, very discreetly and unobtrusively using the back of an [end p3] Order Paper; never running after a Minister; never joining a conversation with a Minister, MP or Peer unless invited to do so; Never in any circumstance making use of anything accidentally overheard in any part of the Palace of Westminster; After averting your collective gaze for 100 years from any incident, pleasant or otherwise, in those parts of the building to which you have privileged access, [end p4] today you can confess—this is your life. Today in the Savoy the Lobby is made flesh. And, if I may say so, what a ripe, rosy lot you look, too, your decades of self denial clearly suit you. You will, of course, return to the shadows for another 100 years very soon after I sit down, leaving only a warm after-glow [end p5]
Meanwhile I for one rejoice in your fleeting identity—in your being let out, as it were—for it simplifies my second task of proposing the health of an organisation which otherwise would not exist and would never meet.
So, just to make absolutely sure that every member of the Lobby is clear about the terms on which I am speaking: celestial blue is on the record. [end p6] That, I understand is what I am called in lobby-speak. Or so the ‘old hands’ say. Well, it's better than being green or yellow, and infinitely better than being sunset red. But you are, of course, aware of that. The origins of the institution we are honouring today are less well known. Indeed, they are not documented at all, and certainly not the agreement with speaker peel admitting “a gentleman of the press to the members' lobby” . Since the records of your first 50 years were incinerated by a wartime bomb, such an ingenious solution to the 30 year rule, all that history has vouchsafed to us is that the unknown pioneer of Lobby journalism first took up his lonely station round about the time that General Gordon was dispatched to Khartoum— [end p7] incidentally, Gordon left 100 years ago this very day; it was also around the time that Marks met Spencer and that women were admitted to certain degree courses at Oxford.
The world, as you know, has never been the same again.
In other respects—some happy, some sad and others rather wry—1884 and 1984 have only too much in common. [end p8]
For example, Manny Shinwell came into the world—and we wish him well.
A “numerously attended” meeting was held in March 1884 at the Mansion House to protest against the enormous increase in the school board rate. And a meeting of city ratepayers to discuss the Bill for London Municipal Government had to be dissolved “in consequence of the noisy and riotous conduct of those assembled” . [end p9]
The TUC assembly at Aberdeen in 1884 passed resolutions that the House of Lords ought to be abolished and that hereditary principles should be expunged from the constitution.
Greenwich was adopted by the Prime Meridian Conference as universal time in the face of strong protests from the French.
And The Standard published a draft of the Government redistribution Bill, [end p10] the accuracy of which was at once officially denied, although it was also asserted to have been obtained—and I quote— “through breach of duty” .
This brings me back to your Pilgrim Father the unknown immigrant who established a press colony in the Members' Lobby.
Was this “breach of duty” the first fruit of his presence there? We [end p11] shall never know—not in this case. But we do know that he was soon joined in the Lobby by others—a very select crowd in those days of what a suspiciously envious account describes as “seven or eight sitting round the table talking to the Prime Minister” .
In the first draft of my speech that phrase was typed as “seven or eight sitting round the table taking to the Prime Minister. I confess to having thought twice about correcting it—but modesty won the day. [end p12]
Today—19 Prime Ministers, 31 Governments, a thousand crises and a million rows later—the Lobby has more in common with an anthill than a cabal. At the last count there were 146 accredited Lobby correspondents coming and going in the Palace of Westminster, crawling over every utterance with forensic zeal, and fetching and carrying the news made, or imagined to have been made, in Parliament, by Government and politicians to the waiting public. [end p13]
Controversy is your inheritance, as you operate on that uneasy frontier between the executive and the media. [end p14]
I myself, I must tell you, am not lost in uncritical admiration of the Lobby, a feeling which I judge to be warmly reciprocated. But whatever else I may think of you as a mirror which holds up the political process to the people, I do not find you tame or cosy, or [end p15] gullible, or even wet. But then, come to think of it, not often dry either.
At your best—and you are never better than in a real crisis or when really up against time, as on Budget Day—you are brilliantly professional, at your worst … . Well, one of the lessons of life is that some things are best left unsaid.
But the real point is that you are free, free to be what you are and free to make what you want of it all. [end p16]
What will people make of us in 100 years time? How, when the Lobby next gathers in public in 2084, would we like our respective institutions—Government and journalism—to be remembered?
Speaking for the Government, I have no doubt about the answer.
— I would like the Governments I led to be seen as those which decisively broke with a debilitating consensus of a paternalistic Government and a dependent people; which rejected the notion that the State is all powerful and the citizen is merely its beneficiary; which shattered the illusion that Government could somehow be a substitute for individual performance.
— As Governments which tackled the vested interests which had been immune for years—the Trade Unions, the nationalised industries, local government, the monopolies in the professions.
— As Governments which were strong to do the things that only Governments can do, but strong enough to leave the rest to the character and initiative of the British people.
That is how I would like the Governments I led to be remembered—all of them.
But how about you?
If your objective for the next 100 years is to enlarge the freedom of the press—and to me a free society and a free media are inseparable—you have a flying start.
I find the richest of ironies in the coincidence between the Lobby's centenary and 1984. [end p17]
Far from the news media being constricted and taken over by the State, technology offers the scope for new expansion—an expansion which would apply to the printed word as well as radio and television if only the equipment were adopted and used.
Far from there being a narrowing or concentration of news sources available to the public, we find they multiply. Minority interests are increasingly catered for.
Of course information technology can be mis-applied and put to Orwellian use. And so it is in totalitarian countries.
But here in Britain—at the close of what the Lobby rightly feels has been a successful 100 years in pursuit of press freedom—our democracy is being underpinned by growing and increasingly varied, independent media.
So the question is not how press freedom can be won but how well the freedom that so manifestly exists is being used.
As so often, the experience of the United States can be instructive.
“Time” Magazine recently devoted a long feature to the subject of public esteem for the media in America.
It concluded—and I quote:
“The roster of complaints against the Press is diverse even contradictory, but there is an instructive consistency to the questions that the public asks most often: are reporters scrupulously accurate or will they reshape a quote, ignore a fact, even concoct an anonymous ‘source’ in order to make a point?
“Why are there so many leaks and do reporters care about threats to national security?
“What value should reporters place on a person's right to privacy? What purpose is served by the preoccupation with ‘investigative’ reporting? [end p18]
“The most fundamental of these questions is:
Can you believe what you read and see?”
I do not necessarily draw any conclusions from American experience. But the apparent alienation between the public and the media in the world's largest democracy is disturbing.
It raises in sharp relief the intensely difficult question of how press freedom can be reconciled with responsibility to the nation of which we are all part.
I do not pretend that it is easy. In fact, I believe it becomes more difficult as the diversity and competition within the media becomes greater, as the speed of communication grows faster and as the demands for instant reaction and comment become more insistent.
But if I read the signs correctly, the need for a better balance between media freedom and responsibility is becoming an issue in all the democracies.
I suggest that reconciliation might be helped if we all gave some thought to five questions:
First, what weighs heavier in the reporting of news—accuracy or presentation? The need to inform or the need to entertain?
Second, are facts as sacred as comment is free? Put another way, should journalists make the news?
Third, are the media fair as well as free? In plain terms, what does it take to secure publication of a correction? [end p19]
Fourth, is there a clear understanding on the limits to incursions into privacy, whether of crown or of commoner? Or are the limits set solely by what is perceived to be commercial interest?
And fifth, does what we read, hear and see in the media add up to a balanced picture of life in this country, warts and all—but not excluding the all? If we continually show all that is worst in our society while the dictatorships show all that looks best in theirs, are we promoting the freedom we cherish or undermining it?
It is, I believe, a compliment to the Lobby and to all that it represents that its centenary has stirred such serious thoughts.
No doubt as a consequence some abandoned soul will tomorrow report “Maggie furious with Lobby” —I am allowed no other emotion.
As a Member of the House for the last quarter of your first century, I, like many others here today, know what we and our democracy owe to Parliamentary journalism in general and the Lobby in particular.
I earnestly wish you to prosper in liberty—and in truth.
So I have the greatest pleasure and honour in asking all your guests to rise and drink to the Lobby on its first centenary and to its chairman for this historic year, John Desborough.