Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-64)|
CBE, MR ANDREW
LANSLEY CBE MP, DAME
DBE AND MS
29 MARCH 2006
Q60 Sir Nicholas Winterton: With
Mr Lansley: With our electorate,
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 backbencherbecause they are always dissident
and I lost the whip in my time and so I am aware of how it goesis
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 rightI
am convinced by what you saythat 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
youand an apology to the Chairman of the Committee.
Q61 Chairman: People have said worse.
Lord Puttnam: All I would say
isand, Ed, it really comes down to people like you and
Lynda and the 120 other new MPsyou 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 isand I cannot help but criticise
the mediathat 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?
Mr Shepherd: You have not?
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
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
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.