The Conservatives are charging journalists to attend their party conference - and it’s not on
A free press needs to be free, and charging for the right to question those in power is a slippery slope
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My phone rang at 3:50am. I looked at the screen bleary-eyed. It was my colleague I’d had dinner with the night before who - overnight - had developed what seemed to be the world’s most sudden and violent stomach bug. “You’ll have to do the interview”, she said.
I dressed as quickly as I could and shuffled down the carpeted corridor of the Hotel Mercure on Brighton seafront to fetch the recording equipment the two of us were sharing. My colleague opened the door, thrust the microphone into my hands then garbled “sorry, I’ve got to go” before running for the sanctuary of her bathroom.
This, I’m afraid to say, is a fairly standard level of chaos at political party conferences. Having been to quite a few, they tend to be a heady mix of policy announcements and late-night drinks receptions where - if the hangovers don’t get you - the “conference cold” almost certainly will. But they’re serious business, for both politicians and journalists.
Why party conferences matter
Parties rely very heavily on donations to keep their balance sheet in the black. Conference allows them to set out their stall to thousands of influential guests including business and trade union leaders, and lay out their vision in the hope that would-be donors are sufficiently impressed to put money into their coffers. Some companies even pay to set up stands on the sidelines - another important revenue stream.
Secondly, it’s the one chance most local party activists have each year to get together and spend time with the high-profile movers and shakers. If morale is flagging a bit, a good speech from the leader can restore the faith of the grassroots whose work is essential for winning elections. For the likes of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, some policy is also voted on and decided at conference - so it has a real bearing on what parties say and do over the following 12 months.
Maybe most importantly, conference provides acres of free coverage in the media. If you want people to hear about your next big idea, a big “set piece” announcement will likely secure you column inches and TV and radio airtime. But the coverage won’t always be positive.
That’s because hundreds of journalists - like me - go to conference to scrutinise these announcements and their impact, to spend time at fringe events where MPs might deviate from the party line, and to build and maintain contacts with those who help us hold those in power to account. It’s not a jolly: conference season shapes politics and the policies that affect you, so it’s vital we’re able to report on these events without barriers being put in our way.
That’s why it’s deeply concerning that the Conservatives have started charging journalists to attend conference. After introducing fees for the first time last year, Tory party HQ announced this year that each application would cost £137. It said this was to cover administration and vetting costs - and to reduce paper and plastic waste by printing passes for journalists who apply to come then don’t show up. For the record, attendance at other party conferences is free.
As you’d expect, news organisations aren’t happy about this at all. On Sunday (28 May) several of them including the Society of Editors, the Foreign Press Association and News Media Association - which counts NationalWorld among its members - put out a joint statement, warning its journalists would boycott the Conservative conference (which is taking place in Manchester in October) unless the fees are scrapped.
It said: “In a democratic society, all party conferences are of considerable political and public importance and, as such, there should be no charging barrier for journalists to be able to act as the eyes and ears of the public by freely reporting at such events. Through objective journalism, the conference also provides a window for the global community to see UK democracy in action”.
And if you’re wondering what difference free reporting makes, cast your mind back to last autumn.
On day one of the Tory conference in Birmingham, Liz Truss and her Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng were facing significant opposition to their mini-Budget and the plan within it to cut the 45p top rate of income tax. Truss gave an interview to Laura Kuenssberg on BBC One just outside the conference venue defending her strategy - watched by then former Cabinet minister Michael Gove.
Within seconds of Truss wrapping up, he gave his reaction on the same programme, describing his “profound” concern about the proposals which he called “un-Conservative”. Journalists doggedly followed the story over the next 24 hours - trying to establish if the tax cut had enough support in the party to pass through the Home of Commons. Gove’s intervention emboldened other prominent Tories like Grant Shapps to go public with their worries. The following morning, the policy was ditched.
Why there could be a press boycott of the Tory conference
Boycotting a party conference is not a decision news organisations and journalists take lightly. I suspect there are those at Tory party HQ who - with some justification - will think: how can they possibly ignore what’s happening there? If the governing party of the United Kingdom announces big education reforms or a massive NHS spending package - decisions that could impact millions of people - are they really not going to report it?
Realistically, we’d have to. But it makes me deeply uneasy to reel off quotes from government ministers without having the opportunity to question them about their plans and the possible implications. If news organisations need to pay for the privilege of challenging a political party on its promises, that’s not a positive step forward for democracy.
The conference will no doubt be available to watch online and we’ll be able to transcribe the big speeches, analyse them from the outside with the help of external voices (including opposition politicians and independent experts) and do our stories. But with fewer journalists on site doing the digging and the interrogating, the Conservative narrative will likely be the prevailing one and we risk doing their PR for them - further undermining trust in an industry which has seen public confidence plummet.
Some Tory supporters may welcome the boycott, as they feel elements of the media are openly hostile towards them and will believe the Conservatives should have the right to recoup the costs of running a conference. This isn’t a party political issue, though. I would feel the same if Labour and the Liberal Democrats introduced a fee to attend their annual gatherings. A free media needs to be free - in every sense of the word here - and the Conservatives need to urgently reconsider their decision.
Culture secretary Lucy Frazer gave a speech earlier this month, describing freedom of the press as a “basic right under threat across the world”. She added that the government wanted to “nurture a thriving media landscape which upholds and champions fearless truth telling”. Right now, it doesn’t feel like it.