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19 May 2003

Tell John Humphrys first

MPs should encourage ministers to make policy announcements on Today

By Andrew Sparrow

Michael Martin has not been a great reforming Speaker of the House of Commons, but this is his chance. On 21 May, journalists and politicians celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Abbot deciding that seats in the public gallery should be reserved for reporters. He thus “founded” the press gallery.

To add to the festivities, Martin should attempt to modernise relations between parliament and the media. He should do something about the government’s practice of trailing its announcements in the press and on the Today programme. MPs complain that they are not “told first”. The Speaker should be bold: he should insist that, in future, all policies be announced on the Today programme.

If you float this idea at Westminster, MPs – and even journalists – will react as if you have proposed the abolition of democracy. Ministers are accountable to parliament, and it is argued that if they announce policy through the media, the authority of the Commons is undermined. “Telling parliament first” is a historic convention. But the truth is that those who defend it are ignoring how the relationship between parliament and the fourth estate has changed.

In Abbot’s time, the Commons could claim to be the principal forum for public discussion in Britain. Matters were debated in parliament, and then reported in the newspapers. Ministers made announcements in the chamber not just because they believed in parliamentary government, but because that was the easiest way of communicating with the public. “At present, the best way of giving rapid and wide publicity to a fact or an argument is to introduce that fact or argument into a speech made in Parliament,” wrote Macaulay in the 1840s. Within a hundred years, newspapers and radio had created far more effective ways of obtaining “rapid and wide publicity”. Journalists, not parliament, set the agenda for public debate.

After the Second World War, MPs made a final attempt to maintain parliament’s status as the nation’s pre-eminent talking shop. They enforced the 14-day rule, which banned the BBC from broadcasting discussions on issues due to be debated in parliament within the next fortnight. “It would be shocking to have debates in this House forestalled time after time by expressions of opinions by persons who had not the status or responsibility of members of parliament,” said Winston Churchill in 1955. The rule was abandoned the following year.

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The MPs who object to Labour making its announcements on the Today programme are trying to fight that battle again; they refuse to accept that parliament cannot compete with the modern media as a channel of communication between government and the public. There would be some reservations about publicising often tedious announcements within the actual news media. But perhaps they could cram the Whitehall statements into the Thought for the Day slot, and so do us all a favour.

The other advantages would be more significant. Theory would coincide with practice. Governments need to prepare public opinion when they take sensitive policy decisions, and a certain amount of trailing is probably inevitable. More importantly, MPs would find it easier to hold the executive to account. Under the current arrangements, ministers take questions – on a white paper, for exam- ple – from MPs who have not had time to read what they are supposed to be asking about. This is what “telling parliament” actually means. Traditionalists think MPs have to hear news first if they are successfully to scrutinise the conduct of ministers. Yet there is no reason why MPs should have to learn about an initiative before anyone else in order to decide whether it deserves their support. If ministers had to release their statements and documents at 8am, several hours before addressing the House, MPs could ask more incisive questions – not least about the gaps between what was trailed and what was delivered. The Commons would become more powerful, not less.

In this way, MPs could worry about the things that really matter: passing legislation and holding the executive to account. The authority of the Commons depends on it performing these tasks effectively, not on MPs scooping Radio 4. Two hundred years after reporters secured an official foothold in the Commons, it is time for MPs to let the media do their job, while they concentrate on their own.

Andrew Sparrow is a political correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. His Obscure Scribblers: a history of parliamentary journalism is out 21 May from Politico’s