Obscure Scribblers: A History of Parliamentary Journalism by Andrew Sparrow

1 April 2008

For additional reading that presents a slightly more critical view of today’s book review subject, I recommend John Lanchester’s review of Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News in the 6 March 2008 edition of the London Review of Books (no subscription required).

Obscure Scribblers: A History of Parliamentary Journalism by Andrew Sparrow

Dr Samuel Johnson did it, and towards the end of his life he expressed regret, remorse, and some embarrassment that he had ever tried it in the first place. A little less than a century later, Charles Dickens started to do it, too, and according to his contemporaries he had a very real talent for it. Governments have tried to ban it, or restrict it with tough legislation and harsh criticism of its practices, but as public opinion has become more permissive and social standards are less strictly upheld, its most ardent practitioners are getting away with a lot more than they would have been able to dream of even a generation ago.

The ‘it’ in question, of course, is parliamentary journalism.

Andrew Sparrow is a political correspondent with the Daily Telegraph, and in Obscure Scribblers he has compiled a compact history of political journalism in Britain, from illicitly printed political pamphlets distributed in the days of Oliver Cromwell to the spin doctors and breaking-news approach of the modern newsroom. The book’s title comes from an epithet used by Sir William Meredith, a baronet who sat in Parliament in the mid-1700s. Sir William denounced the ambitious young men who would fight to claim a seat in the public galleries and dash off reports of parliamentary proceedings for the various newspapers and gazettes that were published in London. He claimed that popular reporting of parliamentary debates would sully the quality of debate and lead to inaccurate and contradictory reporting on the substance of the issues being discussed. As Sparrow’s book clearly shows, mutual hostilities between politicians and the press are certainly nothing new — even three centuries ago, MPs and peers seemed to either moan about how the reporters make too much of every trivial thing that happens in Westminster or sulk about how their stunning speeches and thrilling debates are being ignored by the press. Yet the journalists themselves do not always come away from Sparrow’s history covered in glory; the practices of parliamentary journalism, particularly with regard to ‘off the record’ or ‘lobby’ briefings, are often as restrictive, insular, and narrow-minded as those of the politicians who are put on the spot. Unsurprisingly, the ‘obscure scribbers’ who have clawed their way into Westminster are very jealous of their proximity to the people in power. (To take just one example, not all of the protests against the radio broadcasting and later televising of Parliament have come from the politicians.) But as journalism as a profession continues to evolve, political reporting will evolve with it, and traditions that have worked well enough in the past may not be so applicable even in the near future.

The main strength of Obscure Scribblers comes from the fact that Sparrow keeps closely to his subject and resists the temptation to try to broaden his scope too greatly. In some ways, this strength contributes to the book’s only real weakness, in that the reader would definitely benefit from some prior knowledge of modern political history to better understand the importance of some of the less well-known historical incidents Sparrow mentions. The book could be a little longer in some respects, but the pace and tone seldom slacken and the writing, if a little dry, is far from dull. There are plenty of amusing anecdotes, the history writing is solid without ending up bogged down in petty details, and Alastair Campbell gets a thorough kicking by the end of it. Few bad things can be said about that.

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