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Petition for Hillsborough papers release exceeds 120,000 signatures

August 24th, 2011 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Politics

The BBC reported yesterday that an online petition calling for cabinet papers relating to the Hillsborough disaster to be released had collected 100,000 signatures, which is the amount required for the issue to be considered for a debate in parliament.

This number has continued to rise and is currently over the 120,000 mark.

The papers in question are said to contain details of conversations involving former prime minister Margaret Thatcher about the Hillsborough disaster. The BBC originally requested that the papers be released through a freedom of information request two years ago.

Last month the information commissioner Sir Christopher Graham ruled that there was a public interest in the information being released. It also accused the authority of an “excessive delay” in responding to the original request, which was then to deny the release of the information under a series of exemptions.

The Cabinet Office has since appealed the decision, the BBC reports in this article.

Trinity Mirror Regional’s head of multimedia David Higgerson blogs here about the potential impact of the ultimate decision on the government’s claims of transparency and openness.

… it’s only by seeing the documents in full that we’ll know the current government believes in true openness – an openness where the agenda is set by the public, not by the civil servants.

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Jon Slattery: Government urged to set aside time for gagging law debate

May 5th, 2011 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Legal

An MP urged the government to set aside time for a Commons debate on gagging orders today, suggesting there are rumours circulating that another member of Parliament has taken out a super-injunction to prevent discussion of their activities, Jon Slattery reports in this blog post.

The allegation was made in the Commons as MPs discussed future Parliamentary business – including whether to debate judge-made privacy laws and gagging orders.

Conservative MP for Hendon, Matthew Offord reportedly said:

“Is the Leader of the House aware of the anomaly this creates if, as has been rumoured, a member of this place seeks a super-injunction to prevent discussion of their activities?”

Leader of the House Sir George Young was said to reply that it was “a very important issue about how we balance on the one hand an individual’s right to privacy and, on the other hand, the freedom of expression and transparency”.

He said the government would wait for the report from Lord Neuberger’s special committee on the issue, before deciding the next step.

“It may then be appropriate for the House to have a debate on this important issue,” he added.

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Charlie Beckett: ‘How do you report a hung parliament?’

May 10th, 2010 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick

POLIS director Charlie Beckett looks at the challenges a hung parliament poses for journalists:

The likelihood of a hung parliament raises all sorts of interesting procedural issues for journalists – especially the BBC and other Public Service Broadcasters. How do you report impartially and proportionately and how do you avoid getting bogged down in procedural detail? And how will our partisan press respond?

Generally, governments are given the dominant position in news coverage and allowed to dictate terms and set agendas because they have the popular mandate. New governments also tend to get a honeymoon period where the media allow them to set out their stall and give them the benefit of the doubt.

Full post at this link…

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Who will be the first bloggers to get lobby passes?

So, as Matt Wardman noted on this blog today, bloggers are soon to be allowed into parliament. But who will be the first?

Mark Pack says he hears that passes are “on their way” to the Guy News TV team: “It’s an off-shoot of the Guido Fawkes blog though, unlike the blog, the online TV show becoming legally based in the UK. Even so, given its very irreverent attitude to politics, this is a move that isn’t being met with universal adulation from the existing lobby members.”

Journalism.co.uk dropped a line to Guido himself: “I have not applied for a pass,” is the quick response.

Who’s your money on? Widdecombe show side-kick Iain Dale, or as PR Week’s David Singleton speculates, ConservativeHome’s Jonathan Isaby? Who else?

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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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Guardian.co.uk: Government to convene senior politicians summit to ‘reinforce’ freedom of the press

October 22nd, 2009 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Journalism, Legal, Newspapers

The Guardian reports on yesterday’s parliamentary debate on the effect of libel law on reporting Parliament:

[Justice minister Bridget Prentice] announced that the government would convene a summit of senior politicians to discuss ways to ‘reinforce’ the freedom of the press in reporting parliament and the historic principle of parliamentary privilege.”

(…)

“In the debate today MPs from all parties criticised the issuing ‘super-injunctions’ against the press and their concerns were echoed by Prentice: ‘We are very concerned that they are being used more commonly and particularly in the area of libel and privacy, and the secretary of state for justice [Jack Straw] has already asked senior officials in the department to discuss that matter with lawyers from the newspapers and we are involving the judiciary in a consultation too.'”

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‘Super injunctions’ parliamentary debate: kicks off 2.30 pm

October 21st, 2009 | No Comments | Posted by in Legal

The effects of English libel law on the reporting of parliamentary proceedings will be debated in the House of Commons today at 14.30 pm.

You can watch it here at this link…

Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris secured the debate, following the legal row between the Guardian and Trafigura’s lawyers, Carter-Ruck.

Although a ‘super-injunction’ that stopped the Guardian reporting – or mentioning – the suppressed Minton Report was eventually lifted, it had prevented the Guardian reporting an MP’s question tabled for Parliament.

Carter-Ruck twice issued letters to the House, in regards to the case: firstly in response to media reports on how the firm was trying to ‘gag’ Parliament; secondly, indicating that the case could be ‘sub judice‘. On Friday Carter-Ruck abandoned its injunction and on Saturday the Guardian reported the draft report that Trafigura had battled so hard to keep secret. On Sunday Guardian.co.uk reported that the MPs’ debate would go ahead.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has dissected the injunction here for us on Guardian.co.uk although the document had already been made available by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) prior to the injunction being lifted.

The Times had also been issued with the same injunction, Wikileaks reported.

See:

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Malcolm Coles: Carter Ruck’s new attempt to gag Parliament

October 16th, 2009 | 1 Comment | Posted by in Journalism, Legal, Press freedom and ethics

A version of this post first appeared on MalcolmColes.co.uk.

Having failed to stop the Guardian reporting an MP asking a question about its client British oil company Trafigura and the injunction concerning the Minton report, law firm Carter-Ruck is making a second attempt to gag Parliament.

The firm has written a 3-page letter to the speaker of the House of Commons – in the middle of which are these two paragraphs:

“Until that resolution [of the matter referred to in the injunction], it is not appropriate to comment on the Order [the injunction], other than to make it clear that we and our clients are in no doubt that it was entirely appropriate for us to seek the injunctive relief in question …

“Clearly the question of whether this matter is sub judice is entirely a matter for your [the speaker's] discretion, although we would observe that we believe the proceedings to have been and to remain ‘Active’ within the definition of House Resolution CJ (2001-02) 194-195 of 15 November 2001 in that arrangements have been made for the hearing of an application before the Court.”

The resolution, which is subject to the discretion of the Speaker, being referred to says this:

Matters sub judice

Resolution of 15th November 2001

Resolved, That, subject to the discretion of the Chair, and to the right of the House to legislate on any matter or to discuss any delegated legislation, the House in all its proceedings (including proceedings of committees of the House) shall apply the following rules on matters sub judice:

(1) Cases in which proceedings are active in United Kingdom courts shall not be referred to in any motion, debate or question.

(b) (i) Civil proceedings are active when arrangements for the hearing, such as setting down a case for trial, have been made, until the proceedings are ended by judgment or discontinuance.

So although it is not spelt out in the letter, Carter-Ruck has written to the speaker to suggest that this matter is sub judice – active legal proceedings – and should not therefore be discussed in Parliament, according to the Westminster rules which prohibit MPs’ debates in those circumstances.

Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP had secured a debate for next week looking at the effects of English libel law on the reporting of parliamentary proceedings.

The speaker has not yet indicated whether he will provide a ruling.

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Times Archive Blog: How did the press win the right to report on parliament?

October 15th, 2009 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Press freedom and ethics

A timely post from Times Online’s Archive Blog (via @currybet) given this week’s Trafigura/Carter Ruck/Guardian story on the background to the press’ right to report on parliament, starting in the 18th century.

Full post at this link…

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Guardian gagged from reporting parliament

October 13th, 2009 | 4 Comments | Posted by in Legal, Press freedom and ethics

Last night the Guardian reported that it has been prevented from reporting parliamentary proceedings ‘on legal grounds which appear to call into question privileges guaranteeing free speech established under the 1688 Bill of Rights’.

“Today’s published Commons order papers contain a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found.”

Guardian story at this link…

The only information reported:

“The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves the London solicitors Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, who include individuals or global corporations.”

But the Spectator, thought to be the first mainstream title to provide more information, has reproduced what it believes is the question being referred to.

Guido was one of, if not the first, bloggers to speculate which question was being prevented from being reported.

Hashtags #gagcarterruck and #guardiangag have now been introduced into the Twittersphere, with a Silent Flashmob planned to take place outside Carter-Ruck’s offices on Thursday, October 15 at 1pm.

More to follow from Journalism.co.uk.

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