Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-64)


29 MARCH 2006

  Q60  Sir Nicholas Winterton: With our electorate.

  Mr Lansley: With our electorate, yes.

  Mr Shepherd: I am elated by this exchange, as it happens, and I was brought to remember, by Dame Patricia, that the legitimacy of government rests on this place. This place is of course the supreme expression of the sovereignty of the people and it is true that this place has lost a sense of that. The sense of its importance is now trivialised into the detritus of our private lives as often as not, all the bits and pieces. You have made me reflect much more carefully on the elements of what has happened in the time that I have been here. I have been here 26 years; Sir Nicholas, as you can see, has been here 126 years, so I would defer to his breadth of vision in these matters! However, not to the extent that, in the years that I have been here. The might of the Executive has grown mightier and Parliament at a discount has become more discounted. Yet, there is no government without the authority of this place. I have watched the parties move to seize every elevation, peak in an attempt to control the public agenda. I do not just attribute this to 1997; the political parties were groping forward to that long before. The caricature of the dissident backbencher—because they are always dissident and I lost the whip in my time and so I am aware of how it goes—is a party effort to subdue alternative views. So, Parliament is reduced to having no personality or life independent of the struggle between parties. I think that was what Sir Nicholas was saying in his usual and firm expression. That is a real challenge to us and it is a challenge that affects every level at every attempt for reform. The Hansard Society's book of essays on the Modernisation Committee reflects how we have had a very chequered career. Our agenda is set by the Chairman who is a Member of the Cabinet. The role of Leader of the House is at a greater discount than I have ever known.

  Chairman: Thank you!

  Mr Shepherd: I am sorry to be giving the Shepherd Hansard lecture but it is not intended for that because I am trying to grope my way towards this. It is absolutely right—I am convinced by what you say—that we need a communications strategy. I am convinced that someone has to speak for Parliament in that sense and that the weighting of those in Government and Party HQs who are trying to seek to manipulate a news agenda is counterbalanced to some extent. To Members of Parliament and to acute observers of the political process, this is the dilemma that confronts the "mavericks" who are beginning to mutter louder than I have ever heard before about the tightness of party reign. That is what is happening in constituencies too. I actually find that political life is in many ways more vibrant than I have ever known it before. I attend more meetings on specific subjects about the environment, pensions and making poverty history. All that. There is a vibrancy there. Yet, Parliament so often seems dead. My question is really not a question. It is an affirmation that I think that what you have done is spirited and that it is cause for real consideration. I would like to think that we can move from page 33 of your report, which I do not understand as it is, to page 34, a page which I think I could get to grips with if I had the ability or intelligence. So, mine is really a thank you—and an apology to the Chairman of the Committee.

  Q61  Chairman: People have said worse.

  Lord Puttnam: All I would say is—and, Ed, it really comes down to people like you and Lynda and the 120 other new MPs—you should grab this agenda before you become acculturated and before you have really begun to develop too much sympathy for the reasons and the excuses that are offered for what seems from the outside to be extraordinary levels of inertia. May I offer a last thought from me from Groucho Marx. He said that he never could dislike a person he really got to know. The public do not feel they know you. You have an absolute obligation to make sure that they do understand what you do, and how very civilised and reasonable most of the discussions and most of the conversations that take place within Parliament are. All they get is a reflected sense of a ya-boo sucks crowd who do not agree about anything. The people must get to know you, and you must grab hold of every means of communication by which they can understand what takes place here, and the fact that actually this is a remarkably well governed nation with Members of Parliament they have every reason in the world to respect. That is the message we have to get out and we are failing at present.

  Chairman: I have quoted Enoch Powell in the way that you have and I worry sometimes that we can all get a little too obsessed about the media. On the other hand, if we are making, for example, international comparisons, I spent a lot of time travelling around the European Union as a Member of the European Parliament and I spent a lot of time in the United States and there is not a media in the developed western world that is as dismissive or as aggressive or as intrusive as ours. Enoch Powell famously refused to declare his interests and would not even fill in the form. It would be interesting to see how modern newspapers would treat him today given that principle decision that he took as far as he was concerned.

  Sir Nicholas Winterton: But he was honest and people trusted him. They did not necessarily like him. That is why they would not take any different view today than they took then because they knew that he was telling the truth.

  Chairman: I want to pick up David's point about public reputation because there are regular surveys done and I think you conceded at the outset that, in those surveys, Members of Parliament have had considerable difficulties. We rate in national surveys just a little above fortunately journalists and estate agents. Interestingly, when the same question is asked about Members of Parliament in their constituencies, we rate really quite highly. Why is that? I think there are two reasons: one is that, in our constituency, we are seen to be doing things for people, providing a service, whether it is a surgery or whatever; and the other reason, in my opinion, is that we are doing good things: we are opening an extension to the local hospital or school or we are giving prizes. We are reported very fairly most of the time. I doubt that many local newspapers report the activities of Members of Parliament in a spinning way and I am interested in Patricia's observation about the Government because the biggest spinners in our society are journalists and you only have to look at any day's newspaper to see that. In particular, Andrew, from the experience of dealing with a number of specialists, I have found that the specialists are by far the worst. They will take a half-story somewhere and they will turn it into a controversy or a scandal really without any effort at all because they are having to justify their existence to their news editors who are pretty sceptical as to whether they are worth the money. That is one of the reasons, David, if I can be absolutely frank, why your report was not as well received in Parliament as perhaps it should have been. I agree with all the technical points about trying to find ways in which Parliament sets out the information but one of the difficulties is—and I cannot help but criticise the media—that increasingly politicians do not trust the media to provide a fair account of what we do. I will just give you one small illustration of the problem. I think your report recommends that broadcasters should be able to come in and do walk-in shots and should have access to more parts of the building. I can see a perfectly sensible broadcasting reason for that. It avoids the green benches and it avoids the repetition of particular shots which I know TV editors are very uncomfortable about. On the other hand, frankly, we do not trust journalists and broadcasters to use that access fairly because we believe that what would happen is that they would simply turn up on every corner and thrust a camera into someone's face at a time when frankly they did not want that kind of intrusion. That is the problem. I do not think that the fair comments you make about what Parliament could do will be entirely persuasive to Members of Parliament unless and until there is a companion volume which is called "The Media in the Public Eye" or something similar because unless we address those issues, I do not see how all of the changes that you advocate are ever going to be implemented without some recognition that we live in a world in which politicians in this country . . . I think it goes straight to Andrew's point about the reputation of Parliament. I cannot believe that, say, the Italian public have a better view of the Italian Parliament than the British public have of the British Parliament. If that is the case, I would be very, very concerned as to why that was and I think my answer largely would be that is because of the way in which our activities are reported and, unless and until that is addressed, I really do not think that it is going to make a huge difference.

  Mr Shepherd: On your point about journalists, have you not found that the specialist reporters in health or whatever is the subject offer very fair coverage?

  Chairman: No.

  Mr Shepherd: You have not?

  Chairman: No.

  Mr Shepherd: I would go along to some extent that the political journalists who are crowded in here are often seen to run the agenda of whoever owns their newspaper and that that influences the perspective from which they see it.

  Chairman: At the risk of having a debate amongst ourselves, I actually find that the political journalists here do not cover Parliament. The political journalists spend most of their time covering the activities of government.

  Mr Shepherd: And then the specialists do not get the access that was being argued for. I find them, in truth, very reliable and fair minded about this. They are experts in their subject, better often than we are.

  Sir Nicholas Winterton: To me, the best journalist in this place is the oldest journalist, Chris Moncrieff. You tell him something; he reports it; he does not dress it up; he actually reports. I agree, he is Press Association and how it is dealt with in the newspapers and media is up to those editors, but Chris Moncrieff is the straightest man you could ever come across.

  Q62  Chairman: I can give you a long list of those kind of journalists who have been squeezed out of modern newspapers because they do precisely what you describe, where they report fairly and straight and, as a result, they have simply been told that they are too old and they are no longer doing the job that is necessary.

  Dame Patricia Hodgson: I suppose we all know that if we want to try and get to the truth at the bottom of a deep well, you need more than one source and it has become increasingly difficult over the years. You need to take a large number of these papers and then you need to do some original research yourself. We are making a very simple point which is that you cannot get at the information that might come from here as part of your attempt to get at several sources. I do agree with what you say about a lot of journalism, which again is why we have emphasised one of the areas where there is at least an attempt, whatever you may think about it, to provide objective coverage which is the BBC and you are not making the most of that. If I could just come back to what Richard Shepherd was saying. My son, when he turned 18 and received his first General Election vote, went to the polling station to spoil his ballot paper because he realised what a terrific privilege it was to be able to vote and therefore he must exercise it but, for the reasons that have been described, he did not feel that it was an effective vote. However, my husband is a teacher with particular sixth form interests and he says that there are the first signs of a revival in political, not single issue but political, interest at that age. My goodness, if there is the slightest ember, it must be fanned by again access through some of the means you have been describing.

  Lord Puttnam: I hear exactly what you say and we have all, at different times in our lives, been battered by the media. The truth is, and I have known Theresa a long time and have found her to be an absolutely straight person. She knows, as I know, as you all know that you cannot build any relationship at all on the basis of mistrust. What Parliament has to do is say is, we believe ourselves to be a first-class institution; we are doing our job as well as we can; we will take advantage of every single unmediated opportunity to let you know that. Sooner or later, in the journalistic world, you are going to have to recognise that for the most part we are decent and we are straight. You have to start there. You have to start somewhere and the only place you can start is, we will get our house in order, we will do everything that we possibly can, and we will look to you to respond to that.

  Ms Ettinghausen: Although the Hansard Society cannot promise an equivalent companion volume in the follow-up work we are doing in the next few months, our focus is much more on the media side and we will be reporting that.

  Q63  Sir Nicholas Winterton: Are you taking up what the Leader of the House has suggested, that you do a report "Media in the Public Eye" rather than just Parliament? It would be interesting.

  Ms Ettinghausen: We will be doing a follow-up to this coming out in October/November which, as I said, will be much more heavily focused on what the media can do. I look forward to talking to you about that.

  Chairman: There will be lots of volunteers to give you advice.

  Q64  Liz Blackman: At the risk of having a roundtable discussion, may I just return to the point you were making about the rating in our constituencies being much better. That is because we are all very skilled at describing what we do in our constituencies, often in a way that does not appear to be combative. We simply describe; we tell the story; we say what we are doing; we are very good at that; it reaches a lot of people. We also put ourselves about as well, but it is our use of pamphlets and the media that reaches that wider audience that shifts people's perceptions. I accept and I take all the points you make about the national media but there is a distinction simply because of that, I think.

  Lord Puttnam: I think that is exactly what Groucho Marx was saying!

  Chairman: I thank you again for the report and for finding the time and we look forward to the supplementary volume when it is published. Thank you very much indeed.

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