Parliamentary reform: new reporting rules required

Here’s the text of an article on the need to reform the parliamentary lobby reporting system that has been published in the Independent on Sunday today:

Far from giving the new Speaker a problem, the commune of desolation shared between all MPs provides an opportunity to enact a programme of parliamentary reform that the previous post-holder could only dream of.

Though he or she will process wearing 17th-century buckles, the new Speaker will have to march in the modern age if they are to rebuild the trust of electors. Part of the way to achieve this requires radical change to the way Parliament is reported.

All candidates for the speakership declare that Parliament should be more transparent and accountable. If they mean it, they should start with the anachronistic institution of journalists known as the parliamentary lobby. It’s a closed shop. A club. A bizarre Petri dish of rivalry, personal enmity and the occasional fistfight. It needs major reform.

Other than under-appreciated reforms introduced by Alastair Campbell – a daily account of the discussions held at the morning briefings between the Prime Minister’s spokesman and lobby-pass holding journalists, little has changed to the parliamentary reporting system since 1870, when Speaker Dennison gave special access rights to a small group of parliamentary writers.

I laughed in disbelief when told on my first day as an MP that “if you want to keep a secret, say it on the floor of the House of Commons“. But other than for the most important front-bench speeches, it’s true. Driven by the decreasing space allocated to Parliament in their papers, lobby journalists report only a fraction of Westminster discussions. Where, for example, can you read of recent debates on extreme solar events or addiction to prescription medicines? These and others were not reported because they were not the big story of the day – and all because a cartel of political editors convened over afternoon tea to decide that this was so.

Last month, Sri Lanka was the big story. This month, alas for the Tamils, it wasn’t. So Siobhain McDonagh‘s debate on 12 June over the plight of 300,000 Tamil refugees was barely noticed.

The 238 pass-holding lobby journalists do not have an outlet for lesser stories, so they end up, pack-like, having to chase the same one or two stories each day.

Yet it is a stark reality of life in the internet age that parliamentary reporting no longer has to be constrained by column inches. The new Speaker should log on to see what is possible. See, for example, Ispystrangers.org. There you will read of discussions as wide-ranging as NHS provision in Cornwall and job losses on a missile range in South Uist.

The problems for the lobby are also compounded by absurdly out-of-date “you must wear a tie in the gallery” rules.

David Miliband has called for an end to unattributable briefings. He’s right. In the internet age there is no such thing as a secret. Over the next few months I will argue for a technologically enabled democracy, from e-petitions to digitally encoding each clause and amendment to every Bill. This will further open up Parliament.

Crack open the lobby cartel. Let in a new generation of online commentators. Share access to lobby briefings with a more diverse group of reporters. Rip up the lobby rules and put all briefings on the record. Do this, and a new Speaker can genuinely be part of a new era of accountability.

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12 comments ↓

#1 Josh on 06.21.09 at 10:42 am

Yes and yes and yes.

This is where the ability of social media to bypass the mainstream media and deliver news directly to the public is so important. Rather than an editor deciding what’s ‘important’, the public can choose for themselves.

Via twitter, for instance, @UKParliament tells me what’s going on at the heart of things – committee meetings I otherwise wouldn’t know about, debates being held, statements made. All of this without spin – just pointing me to what’s happening.

Of course there’s @tom_watson, which led me here in the first place – would I have found it otherwise? I don’t read the Indy, and perhaps the Guardian would have made a brief mention to it somewhere, but not until tomorrow.

The point you make about decreasing space in papers, however, struck me as a little odd at first. I don’t generally buy a paper – and space online is (practically) unlimited. But then this isn’t a problem in your thinking – it’s a problem with the newspapers themselves. The decline of print should in many ways mean more coverage, not less – and opening up the system as you suggest would allow this. Aggregating content from a variety of sources, rather than having only ‘your’ journalists’ content, would also allow this.

Anyway, I shall stop before this comment becomes longer than your post – and I am not, after all, doing anything but agreeing with you.

#2 Silent Hunter on 06.21.09 at 10:44 am

Mr Watson also featured in the Telegraph’s MPs’ expenses scandal disclosures.
Mr Watson, the minister for digital engagement, spent the maximum of £4,800 in a single year on food, and had his expenses cut after buying a set of dining room chairs that exceeded the limit set by the fees office.
He was forced to defend the appearance of a receipt for a “pizza wheel” on a Marks & Spencer receipt he submitted, saying ti was given as a free gift after he went on a £150 spending spree at the store.
He also used his parliamentary allowances, along with fellow Labour minister Iain Wright, to lavish more than £100,000 on a shared central London crash pad since the last general election.

Says it all really!

#3 Civil on 06.21.09 at 11:30 am

The great problem with information in the Commons is also access to video of it. http://www.parliamentlive.tv is fine if you want to watch live, or indeed watch a whole day’s debate – but if you just want to see a snippet, say a statement or an adjournment debate, you have to sit through the whole thing.

The best thing parliament (or PARBUL) could do, is to

1) Split parliamentlive videos so that you can view them by item of business on the order paper (within reason),
2) Allow the ‘youtubing’ of videos. At the moment videos cost a fortune to buy to put on youtube, but so long as they are not edited, they really should be in the public domain

#4 Alan Burkitt-Gray on 06.21.09 at 12:03 pm

“Where, for example, can you read of recent debates on extreme solar events or addiction to prescription medicines?”

Well, Hansard is available online, so you can read them there. But why would anyone. Parliament is so cut off from power that a debate in the House of Commons on solar power is as relevant as a debate in the Dog and Duck on solar power.

#5 cyberdoyle on 06.21.09 at 12:07 pm

Great idea Tom, more use should be made of sites like WriteToReply and give more people the chance to contribute. Twitter has exposed Iran, it could do the same for other issues, and promote good practice. Knowledge is power. Power to the People.

#6 Jonathan Walker on 06.21.09 at 3:53 pm

As I said on Facebook, I agree with your sentiments but I don’t see the link with reforming the Lobby or changing reporting rules.

Anything that happens in Parliament can already be seen by anyone live, on the parliamentlive.tv website, or read in Hansard on the Hansard website within a few hours.

The unattributable briefings that take place – “Labour soucres”, “Whitehall sources”, “friends of the Home Secretary”, “the BBC has learned” – are not lobby briefings. They’re just people, such as politicians and special advisers, talking to journalists they choose to talk to.

There’s no rule changes that can stop that happening, or force politicians and SAs to issue what they say openly in RSS feeds or anything like that.

#7 Matt Wardman on 06.21.09 at 9:44 pm

Is there a reason why this wasn’t done in 2002 when the official daily briefings were introduced? What did Alistair Campbell think at that point?

Is it one of those things that is a very useful tool for controlling presentation and managing Parliament – that can only be changed by sceptical people ambushing a new Government before it really notices (thinking of St John Stevas and Select Committees in 1979-1980)?

Good to open up the lobby – especially for reporting of detail.

#8 dreamingspire on 06.21.09 at 10:32 pm

Go to it, Tom! But why could you not push that when you were a Minister? It seems as if the only Minister pushing his dept is Lord Adonis.
As for Hansard, I do refer to it from time to time, but more for the reasoned debate in the Lords than for anything in the other chamber. And also the transcripts of witness sessions for Select Cttees come in very useful.

#9 Ian Kirby on 06.21.09 at 10:34 pm

Really interesting argument Tom, but speaking as one of those 238 Lobby journalists I think you miss a few very important points:
* the regional lobby provide a very good service in covering stories which are of vital interest, even if it is to minority communities. Many of them now have blogs, so their content is now available to far more people than it used to be. I cut my teeth on Hansard and adjournment debates and still refer to them daily.
* the daily lobby and, especially, the broadcasters, definitely are obsessed with following 1 or 2 stories but this is a commercial market. The BBC moved Yesterday in Parliament to Long Wave and papers such as The Times and the Daily Telegraph dropped its parliamentary page.
* the Sunday Lobby, of which I am a proud member, prides itself in covering stories which are off the mainstream agenda. Alastair Campbell always denegrated us as obsessed with “froth” but he was wrong. Today there were 22 politics stories in the News of the World. 12 of those came from the proceedings of the House. They may not always be headlined “in the Commons” but that is where they came from. We hunt though select committee reports, Hansard written answers and statements.
* there is an insufferable smugness among politicians to assume that what goes on in the Commons is of vital national importance. If it is so vital, why were there only seven MPs present during a recent debate on security during the Afghan elections which produced a story which I filed on my blog yesterday (http://blogs.notw.co.uk/politics/2009/06/brits-to-stay-behind-the-wire-in-afghanistan.html)?????

#10 Tom on 06.22.09 at 9:45 am

Thank you all for your comments – all very interesting.

Why have I written this now, DreamingSpire? Two reasons. Firstly, I’ve got 30 hours a week of my life back and can think a little more. Secondly, I wasn’t responsible for the workings of Parliament when a Government minister – Harriet Harman and Chris Bryant were. Now on the backbenches, I can say what I like.

Ian K – I know about the smugness of politicians. Sometimes though, MPs have a policy obsessions that may not be newsworthy in the classic sense yet are still important contributions to a debate about the direction of our country.

Tony Wright has been promoting parliamentary reform for years, for example. Often his reports and ideas have fallen on deaf ears. This week he’s centre stage. With hindsight, he deserved a fairer hearing.

Here’s my central pitch: The Internet allows us to create a ‘long-tail democracy’ in parliamentary reporting. Not every debate is relevant to all UK citizens. Yet every debate will be relevant to someone or some group of UK citizens. This is really expanding on your valid arguments about the regional lobby.

There is too much emphasis on breaking new stories in the lobby. I know you will roll your eyes at this. The new Speaker has a duty to ensure that Parliament is relevant though. A proper study of how debates are covered would inform us all as to whether the taxpayer is getting value for money for the amount spent on providing reporting services to media organisations.

My hunch is that in the digital age there can be a better way for Parliament to get its messages out. Parliament becomes accountable and relevant to people’s lives when the goings on in every nook and cranny is explained.

And decent all round reporting will help keep the Executive to account.

I’d could say more but have to get to London to vote for the new – reforming – Speaker.

#11 David Higgerson on 06.22.09 at 11:38 am

Hi Tom, I think the need to make it easier to cover the Commons in particular has been achieved by Theyworkforyou – an excellent resource which makes it easy for anyone to find the information which they need.

I’m not sure getting rid of these off-the-record briefings would change anything, other than increase the number of one-to-one briefings.

And as for the Lobby not sitting in the Commons, perhaps the point should be that if the majority of MPs can’t be bothered to turn up for much of the time, largely because Labour has sidelined the chamber, then why should the media?

#12 Bearded Socialist on 07.01.09 at 11:57 am

Mr Watson,
Me met over a beer last night and I wanted to thank you for getting a round in and generally being a top bloke.
Thanks

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