By Phoebe Jarvis
Image credit: Leeds Inspired
Relaxed and informal, this free Leeds Lit Fest event took place in the comfortable intimacy of an after-work catch up between London-based political journalist Marie Le Conte, and Jack, the manager of Hyde Park Book Club and a current University of Leeds PhD student. At the same time, the dimly lit basement of the Book Club and the carefully chosen props (including, I suspected, an empty bottle of wine) gave this encounter the impression of a nightcap between confidants. These two neared the inappropriate in their discussion of the inner workings of the houses of parliament, the mysteries of MPs and their Love Island WhatsApp groups, as well as the secrets to a career in British journalism as successful as Le Conte’s. A few drinks ordered from the upstairs bar, and we felt like a fortunate few invited into the old boys’ network for the evening; imitating the very complex parliamentary social system that Le Conte explores in her reporting, and new book, Haven’t You Heard?
Le Conte’s book, and her argument this evening, is a case for gossip; in her own words, it is crucial for functioning democracy. When formal channels of information fail (and of course, they will fail – all formal institutions depend on a mass of individuals, each subject to bias, societal constraints, and their own personal agendas), gossip, or informal knowledge, is all we have. Without it, those in charge of information hold all the power. In a more practical sense, it is necessary for political journalists like Le Conte, and even civil servants, to do their job. She tells a cautionary tale of mid-rank civil servants so distanced from their MP that they were forced to analyse opinion pieces in newspapers and haphazardly work backwards, trying to ‘reverse engineer’ the actual policies this MP wanted to implement. Haven’t You Heard? details the importance of gossip – but it is also an expose of the odd, confusing, and frankly, unfair, informal exchanges of knowledge which take place within the walls of Westminster.
As a non-Brit, who is both a part of and a commentator on the interconnected networks within the houses of parliament, Le Conte’s ability to articulate this environment to others is refreshing. She tells us: imagine a workplace formed of MPs, hundreds of miles away from their constituencies and families, and young parliamentary staff, fresh out of university; place them in a job which requires 10pm vote attendance; and dot around some of the cheapest bars in London (there’s a running joke among staff that the only place they can afford to drink in the week before pay day is the houses of parliament). The result is a workplace culture which is rife with drinking; MPs, staffers, and journalists free to gossip and form relationships in their own little parliamentary bubble.
Although Le Conte stresses the importance of casual interaction, she is not forgiving of this environment. She acknowledges the absurdity of a workplace in which so many of the (white, middle aged, middle class, male) employees attended school together. Not only is this a very privileged bubble, but a dangerous one too: Le Conte herself moved from news to features to avoid having to one day “end the career” of someone she’d grown to consider a friend. When asked to consider the biggest shift in parliamentary affairs and reporting in the past few years, she cites WhatsApp. This makes a journalist’s life hell, apparently, for every individual source she chases ends up having gotten their information from the same group chat.
The discussion between Marie and Jack bounces between witty anecdotes and serious consideration: moving from a genuine concern for the future of journalism amid a resurgence in privacy concerns; to the unlikely story of Le Conte’s first encounter with politics (it began with a terrible house party); to the disheartening unimportance of the ongoing Labour leadership race. And when asked what the worst thing about British culture is – having spent so much time embedded in the old-fashioned houses of parliament – she replies: “it’s the fucking food. Why do you rave about beige comfort food so much?”
Marie Le Conte is a freelance political journalist, based in London. She has written for the Guardian, VICE, and i-D Magazine, among others. Her book, Haven't You Heard? Gossip, Power And How Politics Really Works, released in 2019, was named i's political book of the year.