Confessions of a female lobby correspondent

    22 July 2016

    In March 2002, a year after I joined the Westminster lobby, I went to a lecture given by the Whitehall historian (and former Times and FT political journalist) Peter Hennessy. Afterwards, I got him to sign a copy of his book The Prime Minister. “For Jane,” Hennessy wrote, “With best wishes. (Please reform the lobby!)”

    Hennessy’s longstanding complaint about the lobby is its secrecy and too-cosy relationship with politicians. But his message hinted at another, related, problem: it is a club that was – and still is – overwhelmingly male. That was the conclusion of Professor Sarah Childs of Bristol University, who published a report this week endorsed by the Speaker. Among other thing, the report calls for an end to the ban on breastfeeding in the chamber and gender neutral toilets. She also recommends that at least 40 per cent of lobby correspondents should be women.

    When I started in April 2001, as a political correspondent for the Press Association, about 20 per cent of the 120 reporters were female. Nearly a decade and a half later, representation of women lobby journalists has barely improved. A survey in 2013 found 23 per cent of the lobby were women, although this year a number of senior women journalists have left so that will shrink. I have just stood down as Political Editor of The Independent on Sunday, so I am adding to this problem (although I will still be writing columns from Westminster). Laura Kuenssberg’s appointment as the BBC’s first female political editor is fantastic, but there are now only three female political editors of national newspapers – Caroline Wheeler at the Sunday Express and Anushka Asthana and Heather Stewart at the Guardian.

    Why has progress stalled? Is it because women find the male-dominated lobby – and Parliament as a whole – sexist and stuffy? I am not so sure. It is true that some MPs and peers are quite badly behaved. In 2003, when I wasa political correspondent for the Daily Mail, I had a moderately boozy and gossipy lunch with a Conservative MP at Quirinale in Westminster. On the way back to the Commons, as we walked through a quiet corridor off Westminster Hall, the MP lunged at me, kissing me on the lips. I shrank back, horrified and embarrassed – before running away.

    I did not complain at the time because, as a junior reporter, I didn’t want to cause a fuss. If this happened now, I would give the MP a slap, although this might only excite him. This was probably the one time the line was crossed in my nearly 15 years in the lobby.

    There were plenty of borderline moments, though – and speaking to female colleagues, they have similar experiences. One peer was renowned for sending text messages to women journalists suggesting what they should wear at lunch. A Conservative MP told a female lobby journalist to “give me a kiss, it keeps me going” after a meeting – to which the journalist hastily kissed the air before making a speedy exit. Another Tory spent 10 minutes commenting on the appearance of the female journalist who was buying him lunch. This behaviour isn’t confined to one party: a former Labour Cabinet minister had a reputation for being over-familiar. With so many men around, it can feel like an all-boys public school, with its associated arrogance and hierarchies. One female journalist tells me she frequently experiences “that telescopic zooming out moment where you realise you are the only woman in a room full of men”. In a briefing where it is one man talking to a huddle of mostly men, it is easy to feel overlooked, she says.

    But I have spoken to women MPs who used to work in law or in the City who say the culture in both is far worse than in Parliament. The percentage of women MPs jumped from 22 per cent in the 2010 parliament (similar to the lobby) to 29 per cent in 2015 and that has made it easier to be a female journalist – walking around Portcullis House there are simply more women to talk to, so it feels like normal society.

    “It’s not like Mad Men where we’re all crying in the ladies loos,” says one.

    Back in 2001, when it was more common for political hacks to hang around in the Members’ Lobby waiting to talk to MPs, it was strange sometimes being the only woman in the room. Most of the time I was ignored.

    At that time, some of the women were frustrated that, even though we had broken into this exclusive club, there were still some parts of it that were out of reach. The lobby men’s football team, which is still going, would play matches with ministers and No10 aides and then they would all go to the pub afterwards. We tried to set up our own football team, but we couldn’t get the numbers. So as a way of levelling the playing field, women lobby journalists set up a lunch club, where Cabinet ministers or key opposition figures would come and speak to our small gang. It was successful for a time – Peter Mandelson memorably got caught out saying Gordon Brown had outmanoeuvred Tony Blair on the euro ­– but we were called the “lezzy lobby” by some of the men, who complained that our club was sexist for excluding them.

    Foreign trips with prime ministers and senior politicians have changed. Gloria de Piero, who was in the lobby for GMTV before becoming a Labour MP in 2010, once said the travelling lobby was like a “stag night”, such was the raucous behaviour and drinking by men. These days it is still boozy, but there are more women drinking too. Foreign trips also provide an opportunity to glimpse politicians off guard.

    In July 2007, when I was at the Mail, I went on a visit to Rwanda with David Cameron. At the time, the Tory leader was under fire from his backbench MPs over grammar schools, Europe and Gordon Brown, who was enjoying his honeymoon as Prime Minister. To make matters worse, while Cameron was in Africa his constituency was under floodwater. The report I filed for the Mail from Kigali started on the front page with the headline: “So where’s the Rt Hon member for washed-out Witney?”

    Cameron saw the newspaper when our plane stopped over in Nairobi. Brandishing a copy of the Mail, he came over to where I was sitting with David Wooding of The Sun. I prepared myself for some harsh words but instead the Tory leader scrunched up his face and let out what can only be described as a roar at the pair of us before returning to his seat. It was a month after Blair’s “feral beast” speech, so I guess that’s what he meant.

    My love of covering great stories like this has vastly outweighed any negative experience of the odd lecherous MP. My decision to stand down as political editor was because I wanted to see my five-year-old daughter on Saturdays. Julia Langdon, who in 1984 became the first female political editor in Westminster, has said having children was one of the reasons why she left the lobby in the 1990s. Gaby Hinsliff stood down as political editor of The Observer for similar reasons. Balancing childcare and the long hours of lobby journalism is surely part of the reason why representation has stalled. But this doesn’t mean that being a mother is irreconcilable with being a political journalist. I can think of several women lobby reporters who have children. It is all down to personal choice.

    There is more that newspaper editors can do to promote women, particularly into senior positions. But unlike political parties we can’t demand all-women shortlists to get the numbers up.

    Finally, to Hennessy, I would say I am sorry that I have failed to reform the lobby, but in my 15 years it has evolved, a little, by itself.

    Jane Merrick is a columnist for The Independent and Independent on Sunday and can be found on Twitter @janemerrick23