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Bloggers to be given access to Westminster parliament

This is an edited version of a post that first appeared on the Wardman Wire. Re-posted here with permission.

PR Week is reporting that House of Commons authorities are preparing to bring down the barricades and allow bloggers into parliament:

House of Commons chiefs are fine-tuning plans to give bloggers privileged access to government communications. The radical move would see selected bloggers allowed into the Westminster lobby system, provided they meet certain criteria. PRWeek understands that conversations have been taking place between the Commons authorities and Financial Times political editor George Parker, who is chairman of the parliamentary press gallery.

Evolutionary approach

A ‘gradualist’ approach will be adopted, which does not sound very “radical”.

Parker told PRWeek recent applications had forced the authorities to revisit the issue. ‘The system is being tested on a case-by-case basis,’ he said. ‘There is no ban on bloggers at the moment, but things are being refined as we go along, because it’s a new form of journalism and the authorities are having to adapt.’

To me this sounds sensible, provided that ‘gradual’ does not mean ‘one minor change and then we stop’.

Worried about bloggers

Yet the authorities are worried about a free for all:

Parker said: ‘What the Commons authorities are concerned about is that there should be no precedent set that would create a free-for-all. They don’t want to have the House of Commons over-run by bloggers.’

I don’t buy this. Politicians routinely play far filthier tricks than bloggers could dream up.

I think that this is a mirror image of the worries which existed centuries ago when they were concerned about letting reporters in at all. This is rather long quote from the history of Parliamentary Reporting, illustrating that the Parliamentary Authorities have sometimes been more concerned with controlling reporting, rather than facilitating it. From Wikipedia:

Before 1771, the British Parliament had long been a highly secretive body. The official record of the actions of the House were publicly available, but there was no such record of debates. The publication of remarks made in the House became a breach of Parliamentary privilege, punishable by the two Houses. As more people became interested in parliamentary debates, more individuals published unofficial accounts of parliamentary debates. Editors were at worst subjected to fines. Several editors used the device of veiling parliamentary debates as debates of fictitious societies or bodies. The names under which parliamentary debates were published include Proceedings of the Lower Room of the Robin Hood Society and Debates of the Senate of Magna Lilliputia.

In 1771 Brass Crosby, who was Lord Mayor of the City of London had brought before him a printer called Miller who dared publish reports of Parliamentary proceedings. He released the man, but was subsequently ordered to appear before the House to explain his actions. Crosby was committed to the Tower of London, but when brought to trial, several judges refused to hear the case and after protests from the public, Crosby was released.

Parliament ceased to punish the publishing of its debates, partly due to the campaigns of John Wilkes on behalf of free speech. There then began several attempts to publish reports of debates. Among the early successes, the Parliamentary Register published by John Almon and John Debrett began in 1775 and ran until 1813.

Where change has happened, it has been through a process of external factors forcing the hand of parliament, rather than by parliament choosing to open itself up for public scrutiny. This time is no different, and we shouldn’t forget that, despite the protestations, grunts and squeaks from the Honourable and Right Honourable Members, and the Noble Peers.

Greater openness is in everyone’s interest, and there will inevitably be a few ruts and rumbles along the way. But as soon as the pressure is released, the process will begin to reverse through natural inertia.

Acceptance criteria

Rolling all of that together, “acceptance criteria” are proposed. Bloggers would need to be ‘popular’ and have a ‘track record’.

He added that certain criteria should have to be met by bloggers: ‘The general criteria we would agree with is that the person applying for the pass should be a proper journalist with a track record of journalism; that they should be operating for a respectable news organisation or website with a reasonably large number of subscribers or viewers; and that they should be using the pass for the purposes of journalism, rather than coming in and commenting on stuff.’

Those will be difficult lines to draw.

“Reasonably popular” is relatively easy to define, and could be as straightforward as ‘10,000 unique users a month’ whilst being a recognised commentary site.

However, what is a “respectable news organisation”? Do campaigning blogs qualify as “news organisations”? I think the key here may be in the phrase “and that they should be using the pass for the purposes of journalism, rather than coming in and commenting on stuff.” That is, the emphasis is on reporting rather than commentary.

  1. Jack of Kent has a legal column in the Lawyer; will he be allowed in? What about Ben Goldacre?
  2. Does Comment is Free count? A lot of bloggers have written for the site, but it is a mudpit of debate compared to the vast majority of blogs, yet is an accepted platform.
  3. The Heresiarch has not written extensively for other sites, nor has Cranmer, but both put much of the mainstream media to shame on their specialist subjects.
  4. What about writers for Open Democracy, Journalism.co.uk, or thinktanks?
  5. What about the Wardman Wire – I hope that we are ‘respectable’, but I don’t intend to be so if respectable means giving unacceptable control to an external body.
  6. Part of the stock in trade of politically or party-aligned blogs such as Liberal Conspiracy, Left Foot Forward, Conservative Home, Labour List and Lib Dem Voice for the next 6 months will be to inflate minor stories into major stories as part of anti-Tory, anti-Labour or anti-something else campaigning, an activity which involves highly selective use of facts as a basis for exaggeration in the hope that other media will think it is “news”. Does this undermine their status as “respectable news organisations”? The same goes for Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes. I don’t see why this should be a problem, as most newspapers have gossip columns.
  7. Who is allowed into Parliament from multi-author blogs? Most group blogs mentioned above have from a dozen to perhaps 50 authors. At the Wardman Wire, we have about 25 people on the contributors’ list, but half are dormant or retired – yet we have added another 6 in the last month. I am not London-based, but I have half a dozen contributors who are based there. How will that be managed?

Finally, if it is about “respectable news organisations”, does that mean that any national newspapers will be expelled? If not, why not?

Worried about the reputation of parliament

There is also some concern about the reputation of parliament. This is amusing:

However, the Commons authorities are understood to be concerned that an influx of bloggers into the lobby could further undermine the reputation of parliament.

My initial reactions is to ask: you think that bloggers can cause significant damage? The blunt answer to worries about the reputation of parliament is to refer the Commons Authorities to the case of Arkell vs Pressdram, and to the history of the past five years. The reputation of parliament has been damaged by MPs and Peers, and the shenanigans they have been up to conceal these activities from the public, specifically not by media or bloggers. Bloggers are better thought of as part of the salt which has helped cause some of the poison to be vomited out of the system; there’s plenty of poison that hasn’t even been touched yet.

If MP’s hadn’t been fiddling and farming their expenses for decades in contravention of the published rules and with the connivance of the House Authorities, the Speaker and Speaker’s Office, the Fees Office, the political parties themselves, and those who set the business agenda for House, then no one would have been able to accuse them of doing it.

Letting bloggers in will – if anything – act as a further necessary check. If – to go all Guido for a moment – secret expenses farming, fiddling and fraternisation for personal gain become more difficult to hide, then it will be an excellent thing.

Worried about gossip, trivia and mischief

They are also worried about gossip and trivia.

One Commons insider said: ‘If you have a lobby pass, you can wander anywhere. There will be far more scope for mischief and trivia if you let bloggers in.’

Parker said: ‘What the Commons authorities are concerned about is that there should be no precedent set that would create a free-for-all. They don’t want to have the House of Commons over-run by bloggers.’

It seems to me that gossip, trivia and mischief have their source in politicians and their staff as much as in the media. I do, however, think that there is an opportunity here for access which is more finely-grained than “in” or “out”; I’ll comment on that below.

Opportunities to do things better

I’ve made clear that I think there’s more than a little self-justification going on in the statement from the Commons Authorities. These are my own thoughts about things which may happen next.

Firstly, the ABCe circulation measurement organisation could offer a lower priced product as one way of auditing the “readership” of blogs. Or perhaps Wikio could do it as a new service, as many of the relevant blogs already run their “ranking” badges.

Secondly, I would not be surprised if a condition of entry to the lobby system is that blogs accept some sort of regulation, perhaps via the Press Complaints Commission.

Thirdly, there is an opportunity here for more ‘fine-grained’ specialist reporting, which may require changes in access for reporters outside the lobby. It will be a mistake to limit access to general political bloggers. I would like to see Commons’ Committees, which mirror specialist departments, authorise specialist bloggers to report on particular aspects of parliament – for example an academic specialist who writes a blog about landslides should be able to attend to report a debate on earthquakes. The benefits from allowing bloggers proper access to parliament goes way beyond the lobby beat; the greatest benefit will be from allowing reporters to reach all the nitty-gritty detail which is not usually reported at all.

Finally, there is a question of resources. It would be a farsighted idea to make small grants available – perhaps as little as £100 a day or just out of pocket expenses – to help relevant amateur but knowledgeable bloggers attend parliament.

Initially, this could be paid for out of monies recovered from repayments of over-claimed expenses; the small amount of £1 million – £2 million of repaid expenses so far would cover 20,000 reporting days at one hundred pounds each.

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