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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)

MR PETER RIDDELL, MR NICK ROBINSON AND MR MICHAEL WHITE

28 FEBRUARY 2007

  Q1 Chairman: Mr Robinson, Mr Riddell and Mr White, thank you very much for agreeing to give evidence this morning. As you are aware, the inquiries we are conducting at the moment are on strengthening the role of the backbencher and making better use of non-legislative time, and those two are obviously linked and linked very closely. We are aware of the personal commitment of each of you to Parliament and to the reporting of what happens in Parliament, you would not have spent so many years of your life here had you not been. One of the things we are all aware of is that the nature of reporting of what happens in this place has changed, certainly in the period that people like Nick Winterton and I have been here. I am not certain that the quantity of reporting has gone down and I do not look back to any kind of golden age, but what is palpable is that up until the early 1990s all the broadsheets, and actually a paper like the The Mail as well, had pages for reporting what happened in Parliament as opposed to the wider politics, and the BBC paid more attention to what happened in Parliament rather than just to the politics. There have been, I think, some beneficial developments which have strengthened the role of the backbencher, which sometimes people pocket and forget, above all the establishment and gradual strengthening of select committees and a lot of the reporting one hears today is on select committees and that is a good thing not a bad thing. The sense I have is that it is more difficult for serious journalists to get space, whether it is in the papers or airtime, about what is happening in the place, as it were, in terms of information. The balance between that and necessary reporting about personalities, which is part of politics, as well as the gossip, which we query, has shifted. I say it is not about allocating blame because there are external, what Ed Balls would call "exogenous", factors here. First is the introduction of televising of Parliament, the second is the 24/7 news coverage which made a dramatic difference and the third is governments, and we are as culpable as any for trying to handle the 24/7 news cycle by sometimes not paying proper attention to Parliament and parliamentary etiquette, so all of those things are there. One of the issues is where, certainly, serious newspapers have a similar interest to Parliament, because I note that the decline in turnouts almost tracks the decline in the readership of serious newspapers, so we all have an interest in trying to turn this round. That is a sort of sketch of where we are and I think what my colleagues would be interested to hear from each of you at the beginning is whether you think there is a problem, first of all, about how this place is reported and the activities, particularly that of backbenchers and, if there is, whether you think things can be improved and, if so, how?

  Mr Riddell: One factor I think that has been left out is, of course, the Internet. If we had been witnesses here five years ago I would have shared the implicit pessimism in your analysis, that, clearly, there is a decline in a lot of the analysis of what there is in the papers, both Mike and I, as veterans, have experience, we agree, but it is changing and it is changing quite significantly. One has changed dramatically because what has happened on the parliamentary page on the parliamentary website has made direct access, whilst these may no longer be dedicated parliamentary pages, and these are not in any paper, the access of your constituents to what is going on here is better than it has ever been, no-one need pay a penny for it as long as they have got internet access. We know the access on Hansard, so that is an important point. Also in terms of the coverage of newspapers themselves, we are all at the cusp, all developing our online sites and the executives of the papers Mike and I work for can produce wonderful graphs showing the hits on the sites shooting up. There is a genuine point there, a serious point there, that potentially in terms of local coverage—and I say "potentially" because it has not happened yet really—there is much greater potential access. The other point I would make is one between national and local coverage. I look around the table; I was born in Mr Sanders' constituency in Torquay, I bet he gets plenty of coverage in his local paper. I am sure it is a true statement in Leicester, Derby, Maidenhead and I know straight off it would be in Lancashire. I think you have got to distinguish between local and national papers but also the Internet, you have got to put the Internet into your discussion.

  Q2  Chairman: Nick and then Mike or Mike and then Nick.

  Mr White: You go first, you have more readers!

  Mr Robinson: On the one hand, let me start by agreeing with some but not all of the Chairman's opening analysis here. The one factor I think you did not mention was competition, televising of Parliament 24/7, handling of 24/7, other people call it spin, but it is competition; in other words, when I became a journalist 20 years ago as a producer of political programmes, there were four channels. You do keep having to remember that television was just four channels, we did not worry about whether people would choose to do something else. Now it is the daily obsession of people in my business about the loss of eyeballs from one second to the next, to the point where there is now a measurement system by the second as to whether people are switching from our news bulletins to different news bulletins, and I would love to say that people pay no attention to it but people inevitably do pay attention to it.

  Q3  Chairman: What is the effect of that? Is it to bring it down to the lowest common denominator?

  Mr Robinson: No, I do not think it does bring it to the lowest common denominator, but there is a huge and intense interest in what engages people and what does not. Often that can be the highbrow. The massive focus on climate change, which the BBC and other broadcasters have done in recent times, is because the audience says it is interested and reflects it and very serious debates in this place as well as between a scientist will get on, but also it works the other way round, if there is a sense things are not of interest to people then it is quite hard to drive those things on. What has happened, as you say, is an end to what I would call "duty reporting of Parliament" beyond, let us just stress for the BBC's case Yesterday in Parliament, Today in Parliament and the Week in Westminster, you see their role institutionally as doing that, but on mainstream news there is no longer a perception that it is our duty to say what happened in Parliament today. There is a huge interest in covering what is topical, significant, surprising or dramatic and there is no prejudice against doing it in Parliament, if that is possible. The question is, is it possible enough, and the question that I put to the Committee is how often is the outcome dramatic, how often is it seriously topical, how often is there a defined outcome in what goes on as against an adjournment debate where there is a discussion rather than a defined outcome, how often is it truly significant. It is those tests that are tests for news bulletins in a way and there is neither a prejudice in favour or against parliamentary coverage. A last thought, it seems to me that the rising coverage of the select committees, particularly in recent months the Home Affairs Select Committee because of the problems of the Home Office, has shown that when the Executive is held to account, that even with a cast list of relative unknowns—and I do not just mean parliamentarians but witnesses too—because it is topical, dramatic and significant and the outcome matters, quite extensive chunks of select committees have found their way on to mainstream news.

  Q4  Chairman: Mike?

  Mr White: Since my colleagues have been optimistic, I shall choose to be pessimistic although I would have made several of the points which they have made. Peter talks about the wonderful possibilities, real and potential, of the Internet and that is all true as far as it goes. But these are very much niches, and you will not be surprised if I remind you that MySpace and YouTube get rather more attention, I suspect, than the parliamentary channel. It is there, it is wonderful, I am daily astonished by what I can find on the net and, as you will expect, I am a bit of a hopeless case in these matters. But the parliamentary site is much improved. Again, on the point of local  versus national, I am always telling parliamentarians that they should not worry about what appears about them in The Guardian, they should always worry about their local paper far more. I know from both observation and experience that many local papers are under enormous pressure, fragmented markets, the Internet again taking their advertising. They are owned by the big chains and editors are explicitly told that politics is not interesting, politics is boring and the readers do not want it. So to that extent I would take issue with Nick's proposition that there is no prejudice for or against parliamentary coverage, of course there is. In the fragmenting media markets which now exist there is a battle for ratings and market share, and if you have only one TV station with only one per cent of the viewers but only a tenth of one per cent of the costs, you are a much more profitable proposition than poor ITV at the moment. So these things are difficult. I am absolutely convinced that there is a general culture of bias which affects all the newspapers, up to and including the FT, against politics in the sense that we knew and reported 20 or 30 years ago.

  Q5  Chairman: Why do you think that is?

  Mr White: There are both positive and negative reasons. One could say that politics vacated its central role in our national life when in the late 1970s, under circumstances we all remember, a marketisation of large swathes of society—economic, political and social activity—took place under the Thatcher Government. I would even risk saying, that by and large it has been beneficial rather than malign. Not a view universally held around the table I expect, but that is what did it, so politics moved off centre stage at the same time the media was deregulated. There are only two Members around the table who were here to vote on the 1990 Broadcasting Act, which gave a very favourable entre«e into the market of BSkyB, as it became, 24/7 television; the BBC responded in kind. The old joke in the media is their slogan is: "Never wrong for long", and that is a factor. Other factors which deregulated the market and about the time the Chairman wrote a report on the collapse of parliamentary reporting, I would think in about 1991, 1992—

  Q6  Chairman: 1993.

  Mr White: —a very good piece of analysis stating what was obvious to those who were close to it but perhaps not to others. I think either the Financial Times or The Times dropped the old parliamentary page, which young people, perhaps, Mr Wright, will not remember but it was a whole page in six point, a sort of pre«cis of Hansard. It was jolly good too.

  Mr Riddell: It was not actually. If you talk to the old lags who used to do that, most of it was duty reporting and it was extremely boring and a very inefficient use of space. Taking the Chairman's point, the trouble is there has not been a substitute. I totally defend the decline of most of the old gallery reporting; the trouble is it has been filled with lots of stories which do not appear in Mike's or my papers, because, underlying Mike's point, is there is a sense that the convention among media executives, because of competition, is that politics is boring. I think you will find that in any of our papers, there is an exception to that on the front page of The Guardian, but, on the whole, a health story will always trump a political story.

  Mr White: That is partly a marketisation point. You experience in your own professional lives the idea of consumerism, again it is back to the point I made five minutes ago, health is an issue because it is a consumer issue. I do not know how accurate The Times lead is this morning, I do not know how accurate ours is either, but they drift in a different sort of way, they are speculative stories about what might be rather than what has been. I do take issue with Peter about The Times report. He may have got up at five in the morning and had a special vellum copy of Hansard delivered to his home and read it. He is the only person I would believe that of, but let us give him the benefit of the doubt. A pre«cis of Yesterday in Parliament found in The Times and had a quick canter through it.

  Q7  Chairman: Before I call Nick in, my last question is there was a great debate towards the end of the 1970s about television documentary reporting. I remember this because I worked for World in Action, which was the butt of the criticism, and it was said then that story journalism represented a bias against understanding and that broadcasters particularly, as well as serious newspapers, had "a duty to inform". I thought there was something in that and I think there is something in that now, is there not? Is it pretty mixed? Mike's point on this culture of bias, there is a bias against understanding but what you cannot get out of newspapers at the moment is an understanding of the political process which might be slightly less central than it was, but it is absolutely fundamental to the nature of our society because all those changes, Mike, about marketisation took place as a result of a decision by the British people to elect a different government in 1979.

  Mr Robinson: Let me just clarify my point about there is no bias against Parliament because Mike took issue with it. My point was at one level a trite point, which is if Parliament happens to meet my test of significance to find out whether it is topical or dramatic whether, frankly, it be the eviction of Shilpa Shetty from Big Brother, Parliament will get on the television. Now you may say that is a pretty low bar to cross, but it is worth saying. There is not a feeling that if it happens here it will not get on, it will get on; now accepted, that is a low bar. The point the Chairman makes is whether there is a bias against the process; I think yes, there might be but not, I would argue, against understanding. If you look back at, say, the debates on tuition fees, foundation hospitals, the war in Iraq or the NatWest Three, once they had built to a significant pitch there was a rather extensive explanation. If I may, I am here for the BBC, I used to work for ITV and defend ITV and commercial broadcasters, a huge amount of intellectual effort is made by commercial broadcasters as well as the BBC, by bright people sitting around saying, "How do we make this clear to people? How can we make them engage?" Where I think you have a point, though I do not think it is a point that is instantly resolvable, is that there is not day-to-day education about the process because there is not a day-to-day view that institutions, per se, should be reported simply because they are there. There is a perception that until there is, as it were, war and recession and, funnily enough, I think wars and recessions would make people rapidly more interested in politics, I happen to think disinterest in politics is related to whether apparently it affects people's lives directly—

  Q8  Chairman: What Galbraith calls "the politics of contentment".

  Mr Robinson: Sure. There would be an effect. But what has gone is that day-to-day sense of what was the process in Parliament today and I think it has gone for a good reason because it does not matter very directly to people's lives and I do not know if people would watch it.

  Q9  Sir Nicholas Winterton: It appears to me, Chairman, that Nick Robinson of our three distinguished witnesses today has a slightly different role from either Michael White or Peter Riddell. Nick is head of BBC political news, so really his duty is to report, hopefully, without any slant on the reporting; Peter Riddell and Michael White are in a totally different position. What worries me is that the media, of which you are all a very important part, is doing less to report and putting much more slant and reporting tittle tattle, gossip, relationships and personalities rather than reporting news. Parliament is now going to have to spend millions of pounds on setting up education centres, websites and everything else to do what historically I believe that the press as a whole—that is the visual, written and sound—has done in the past. I think Michael White is right in his assessment of what has happened. Can I really put specific questions, that was really an observation, to which I am sure you may wish to respond. What worries me is the increasing lack of engagement of Members of Parliament with what happens in the Chamber of the House. Is that because really, other than in exceptional circumstances, what happens on the floor of the House is predictable? People are prepared to spend much more time in their office, they can see what is going on in the Chamber because we now have televisions in our respective offices, of course we have News 24, so really what goes on in the Chamber is so predictable and the chances also of Members getting called to speak is pretty slight. Therefore, the importance of the Chamber as the forum for national and international discussion has gone. Do you think that this is a pity? Do you think that the fact is there is too much legislation, the outcome of which is predictable in most circumstances, and too few, what I would call, "debates" when people can actually express an independent view? Do you think all these things have led to a disengagement which I think has made the Chamber of the House almost irrelevant except for a few very attractive speakers, and you might say that there are maybe a dozen out of 651 in the House? Someone like—I am going to mention his name, if he speaks people will come in and listen—Mr Galloway, an extremist in many respects but a most fantastic orator, people will come in and listen, and there are a few others who people will come in and listen to. Why is there this disengagement? Why do Members no longer believe that their presence in the Chamber is important?

  Mr Riddell: On your earlier observation, I think there is a danger of golden ageism in politics.

  Q10  Sir Nicholas Winterton: But you are part of that golden age.

  Mr White: He is the golden age!

  Mr Riddell: Parliament in many respects is much more effective than it has ever been. One of the problems is myths are allowed to grow up about both this Chamber and the Lords, many of which are completely wrong. We seldom had a more effective second Chamber and a seldom more effective first Chamber, in my view. If you look back to the 1950s, a lot of rubbish was talked then. Do you know there were two sessions in the 1950s when not a single government backbencher voted against the whip, and that was the period of Suez, so your predecessors—before you were elected, Sir Nicholas, indeed possibly your predecessor—were perfectly content to have no scrutiny of any kind at all apart from ritualistic. The substantive answer to your question is partly related to what we said in our first round of replies, the changing nature of the media, but it also reflects particularly the criteria that Nick laid down, which I agree with, of topicality, relevance and decision, that a lot of the procedures in the Chamber have no relationship to normal people's lives. People do not go and hear sermons any longer, therefore the idea of lengthy speeches is completely alien to most people's understanding. There is a number of procedural changes you can make of having short, sharp topical debates. I was a member of the Newton Commission which the Hansard Society organised which reported just after the 2001 election. One of our ideas was to copy the Australian model of having short, quickly-arranged topical debates. That was suggested by the Chairman's predecessor, by I do not know how many, Robin Cook, and was examined by him at the time but, of course, the Government whips squashed it because it was too awkward. That would get interest, if you had short, sharp topical debates like that you would get lots of interest, and also recognising that some of the conventional lengthy debates are a waste of time, they are ritualistic. They do not achieve anything at all, you might as well read it in the record. That applies as much to your colleagues, all right we ignore it, but so do your colleagues ignore it too. When I hear people say, "Let's have a debate on a select committee report", I say, "Okay, tell me who, apart from the minister, the shadow spokesman, and possibly a crank, is going to be there apart from members of the select committee", and the answer is zero, as we all well know. Shorter, sharper things, moving away from ritualistic debate, it is just a suggestion.

  Q11  Mrs May: Peter just branched into the area I wanted to talk about, first of all, which is topicality and whether there are any other ideas from our three witnesses today about how Parliament can make itself more topical and therefore presumably more interesting to people outside. I also wanted to pick up on Nick Robinson's tests of being surprising and dramatic. We are looking at strengthening the role of the backbencher. You are all saying in the various comments you have made that, from your point of view, being surprising and dramatic makes the news or talking about local issues so that we can get into the local paper as a backbencher. I would like to explore that because there is a tension between that and the backbencher making a full contribution here, in this House. There is certainly a need for more topical debates but, also, for debates which look at issues rather than just debate constantly legislation. Where do you see the balance lying now, between your desire for surprise and drama and the need for the backbencher to be making serious, solid contributions in this House that develop into good legislation?

  Mr Robinson: Forgive me, surprise and drama were two of my tests, and they do not always have to apply. Significance is a test. I mean, nobody has to be surprising or dramatic on the day we are about to go to war: it is significant, it gets on anyway. And a defined outcome. Let me give you an example. When there was a debate—a political debate, rather than a parliamentary debate—about whether the Government had given adequate time to debate Iraq, I found it almost impossible within the confines of a news bulletin to explain to the audience whether the Government had or had not done so. It was a debate in Government time. Did an adjournment count? Did an opposition debate count? Did Question Time count? What about a statement from the Prime Minister? There was no way to answer, as it were, your mum's question: "Has the Government given time for a proper debate on Iraq?" because of some relatively arcane procedural points about this place. Which was the debate about Iraq? Which of them had a possible outcome for people? I challenge Members: I give you not just the minute and a half I normally get to explain things but five minutes to explain it on a news bulletin, and my suspicion is you could not. It would be too complicated in order to convey that. If you hit those hurdles, that is a problem. Clearly the test of a debate ought not to be whether it gets on television or radio; the test of a debate is whether it is good for democracy. But if you ask me as someone who works for television and radio and the Internet: "How are you more likely to get those things on?" topicality, surprise, significance and a defined outcome are obviously the tests. One last thought on that: the role of a backbencher in the view of many people outside will be to hold the Executive to account. That can be done by interventions. I see far too few, in my view, backbenchers seeing their role as to intervene on a minister, to challenge a minister on a point—in a sympathetic, not necessarily aggressive way. It seems to me that would have an effect. It was striking that when the NatWest Three debate came, the urgent debate that Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat, managed to secure, this was regarded as some sort of freak rarity. That was something that was part of the national debate, of huge significance to relations between Britain and America and yet it was regarded as a surprise that Parliament could find a way to debate it. I would just suggest to Members that that might be a bit odd.

  Q12  Chairman: I understand that entirely. We have to do a lot more to be topical. It is a real issue.

  Mr White: I would certainly endorse that last point. I also am wary of the myth of the golden age. When Members of Parliament say to me, "You lot are never in the press gallery," I always reply, "We tend to be in the press gallery when you are in the Chamber"—which is, alas, these days, for Prime Minister's Question Time! Alas, again, only once a week! I did not think one 30-minute session for two 15-minute sessions was a very good trade in terms of the public interest or the accountability of the Executive branch. I take issue with Nick, in the sense that explaining the point he raised about Iraqi debates is too difficult to explain to the public. It is no more difficult than the offside trap, or whether or not the ball was handled in the penalty area, for which we have 84 action replays discussed by four learned retired professional footballers at prime time. I am glad to see it hits their ratings when they do this sometimes. Again, I use that as an example reinforcing my view that the commitment to informing, as distinct from entertaining, the public in television and also newspapers has atrophied in recent years. Peter says that the voters do not want to hear sermons. Of course they do. They just hear them in short, three-minute sound-bytes on the Richard and Judy Show or from Archbishop Paxman or the Reverend Humphrys! Parliament, coming back to the point about topicality, has to adjust to a degree—it is not Parliament's job to compete with the Richard and Judy Show—to a world which moves much faster. The NatWest case is a fascinating one. We all turned up for that debate. My younger colleagues do what you all do, I suspect—which is to sit in your rooms, handling the voluminous self-generated correspondence from your constituents with one eye on the telly, keeping an eye on what is going on in the Chamber. If you are really quick, like Sir Nicholas, you get downstairs to hear George Galloway—heaven knows why, but he is a marvellous speaker—but you are doing other things. We do that too. I say to the younger colleagues, "You can't know what's going on in the Chamber by watching the telly. You not only have to see the speaker, you have to see the reaction to the speaker."

  Q13  Chairman: It is like being at the game or watching it on the television: there is a big difference.

  Mr White: That is right. But that is a lost art.

  Q14  Mark Lazarowicz: Michael, you just mentioned the fact that we do get a lot of correspondence—and there is obviously a lot more now with e-mails—but the way in which the media is fragmenting means that five years ago there was a local newspaper and a local radio station on which I did most of my stuff and now there are about 10 different local newspaper formats and various free sheets, and six or seven radio outlets, just at a local level. I have to manage my time to ensure that I do play a reasonably active role in the Chamber and obviously I have to stay involved in local issues because that is important in terms of keeping contact with the public and keeping my profile up there. Maybe I should not be so worried about spending too much time in that kind of area. That in itself is a reflection of the change in the way MPs relate to the public and, maybe, rather than worrying too much about how we get the Chamber more interesting and more exciting again, we should be changing our mode of operation here so as to relate to the fact that there are now many more ways of interfacing with the public at local and national level. Rather than looking at debates and the length of time of debates and so on, we should be looking at the whole way we relate to the public in terms of online dialogue and that type of structure of what we do here.

  Mr Robinson: There is, if you will forgive me, a middle position here to which the Internet gives the possibility. It is not technically difficult for you to send your constituents a video of your speech in the debate. It seems to me that is where there is a real, exciting possibility of the Internet. The great problem of the mass media is that there are many people interested in a topic but then we find many more people who are horribly disinterested in the topic and the temptation is therefore not to cover it in a competitive age. The Internet finds the way through that. You can identify without having to know them by name, or gather their list: everybody who is interested in green issues; everybody who is interested in care homes. Instantly. At the drop of a hat. There is the capacity to have a debate in this place and to communicate not by simply saying, "Let me give you an interview" but "Here is the clip of my speech. This is what I said when I intervened on the minister at Question Time. Here it is as an extract and I will send it to you" and to use organisations, pressure groups to facilitate that for you, so that you inform, let us say, the pressure group on better care for the elderly, of what has happened in this place about that and they disseminate that to their members and pressure groups. Rather than substituting for what happens in the Chamber with interviews and press releases and blogs and the rest of it, find ways to extract what already happens and get it out there.

  Mr Riddell: Could I supplement that with: all of the above, but one of the problems is that I think MPs have become very, very good in dealing with their constituents. It is a world which we do not really see. I see how my local MP performs, as a voter living in north London.

  Mr White: And we admire that enormously. We know Members who are not big stars in this place who are good constituency Members.

  Mr Riddell: Yes, but I am saying that all the evidence shows of satisfaction: the amount of work and the amount of e-mails you get and letters has shot up over the last 20 or 30 years. The result of that has been to squeeze the activities of Members of Parliament nationally here. When I was on the Newton Commission, we had on that commission Tom Sawyer, who was Labour General Secretary in the run-up to the 1997 Election. He was behind the target seats process and we were discussing it and Tom Sawyer said this publicly. We were talking about scrutiny and he said, "It's a strange thing, we had all these target seat MPs and we had a lot of discussion with them about constituency service and all that aspect, we did not mention the word "scrutiny" once." I think one of the problems is that when people become MPs they are very tuned to servicing their constituents—and a good thing too, and they are much better than their predecessors were—but there are no incentives to be good at scrutiny. Often it appears a bit baffling. I know the authorities of the House lay on facilities but let us say it is never all that high priority for the whips to encourage people to be good scrutineers at all. Also, because the ambitions of Members are such that they want to get on the frontbenches first, and very quickly, in a sense, within a year or two, if you are really ambitious and you are not on the frontbench you are not doing your job. That is the myth. Sir Nicholas is shaking his head.

  Mr White: He is a special case.

  Mr Riddell: Yes, but I am saying that is often the philosophy of a lot of people and there needs to be more training and explanation of scrutiny for new Members.

  Q15  Ann Coffey: MPs have got a lot better at communicating with their constituents. I have seen a huge change in how parliamentary material has been used since I came in as a Member but, even then, you are only corresponding with a sort of minority of people. Really if you are going to try to make this place connect, we have to look beyond that interested minority we can service very well by the methods that you outlined. Newspaper readership is falling and, as it falls, newspaper headlines become more outrageous in order to attract attention. People are voting in less numbers and it appears, sometimes, that you are almost in a situation of a newspaper headline: you try to do something outrageous to catch the public's eye. I do not know if they are connected. The things you mention which aroused attention were all very contentious issues, all issues that gave rise to conflict and drama—as, indeed, PNQs are. A lot of what happens in this place is not drama. The scrutiny that some MPs are very good at is not dramatic, it is mind-bogglingly boring. It takes place in Committee rooms and does not get coverage. Obviously we have some responsibility for that as MPs but do you not think there is a kind of wider issue out there and does it not worry you that in a world which is very difficult and very challenging—you know, very complicated—in which people are going to have to make decisions about who represents them, in the middle of profound and complicated problems that cannot be reduced to a 40-minute dramatic conflict? Does it not concern you that we are where we are, both in terms of media coverage and issues in this place? Do you not think both of us have a responsibility in that, and that is even more worrying in the context of that competitive news environment that you described?

  Mr Robinson: I think the answer is yes, it concerns me, but I have long past thinking that you can offer viewers, listeners and readers their greens and tell them to eat what is good for them. We can all sit around being concerned about it but it is an illusion to think we can offer them their greens. We have to find different ways to make it appealing. My contention to you is that when something really does matter, when there is something genuinely at issue, the mass media in this country still does rather effectively have that debate and inform people. I am willing to accept that from day-to-day, between those moments, it will seem often more trivial, more sensationalist in parts of the media, so the question is what you do to ensure those moments, and what you do with the places we know people are willing to come, like the Internet, for more to do it. It is of no use me despairing. Jack used to work for World in Action, and I used to work for Panorama at a time when we competed with World in Action for audiences of eight million. The fact is they are now competing for audiences of around four million but we cannot do anything about it. Believe me, if there was a simple way of doing something about it, it would be done. We are constantly running to keep up with the competitive tastes of the audience and their desire not simply to have what is good for them. But I would say to you, again, that on something like climate change, when David Attenborough makes programmes for the BBC about the threat by climate change, millions of people will tune in for that. It is wrong to despair. It means the things we did before are not necessarily the things we have to do in the future.

  Mr White: Nick says we cannot force the viewers and readers to eat their greens. Of course Lord Reith believed in forcing them to eat a great deal of greens.

  Mr Robinson: No, he did not. He believed in entertainment as well as information. The notion that there has ever been an age, the age of Morecambe and Wise tap dancing, in which people were forced to listen to things they were not interested in has gone.

  Mr White: Let me finish. I think we now say, "And over to you at the studio, Mike"! It seems to me that in the marketised circumstances in which we all operate there has been and there is a far greater degree of pandering to what the metropolitan elite has backed. Unlike poor Mr Lazarowicz, with his website backed by public funds, we have tended to pander much more than we did and for every absolutely mesmerising David Attenborough series which we do all watch, there are 50 which are not what they were.

  Mr Riddell: If you think of your younger constituents: they are not reading the newspapers— yes, sure—but they are going on the web. Do not ignore that. If you look at the graph of what is happening to newspaper sales, they are kind of flattish and soggy—and we give away DVDs and all that stuff—but if you look at online it is just shooting up. Therefore, do not underrate that factor. Journalistically, we are at the cusp of knowing how to deal with that. In many respects I think you probably have the wrong witnesses, with respect to myself and my friends. If you had the newspaper executives in, you would get some very interesting answers—not necessarily comfortable ones, but interesting ones, on precisely those questions.

  Mr Robinson: The thing that is exciting about the Internet is that it allows people to go on a journey. In other words, they can taste at first and say, "I might be a little bit interested in that" and, once interested, it takes them on a journey to more and more detail, more and more information and more and more of what Mike and I jointly would want to see. But they go on that journey voluntarily in a consumerist age; they are not just presented with it.

  Mr White: It is a very odd audience, a lot of it on the Internet. On specialist sites you get a really interesting interaction. I guess Members get this too. We all blog, and the level of vulgar abuse you get if you adopt a vaguely unpopular position (for instance, defending the political classes) is horrible, and generally vituperative and ill-informed. Whereas if you go to a specialist site (pollsters discussing the nuances of polling), it is rather like being in a senior common room at Riddell College, Oxford. There are a lot of self-referential things on the web and it is not community discussion in the public sphere in the sense that politics is.

  Q16  Mr Burstow: Could I come back to the theme we have heard a bit on, which is the idea of a fairly ritualistic House, perhaps, where rhetoric is to the fore; not a decision-making House, in a sense. Progressively over time the Executive controls more procedure. You in some ways have already referred to the SO No. 24 which secured that debate on the NatWest Three. There are very few of those sorts of opportunities within procedures within the Standing Orders of the House now to secure debates in that sort of way. I was interested in these tests and particularly the suggestion that one of the key ways in which we are more newsworthy is to have to find outcomes. Obviously topical debates provide something, but they do not necessarily provide a defined outcome. I am wondering if there are any other specific things we could do. One suggestion is, for example, that we should have more debates on substantive motions if there is something very clear on which the House is forming a view or taking a decision, or, for example, more opportunities for non-governmental legislation to be introduced, not just the sort of ghettoising of a Friday, where private Members' legislation may or may not have a chance to come through, but other opportunities. For example, in the Irish Parliament there are specific allotted time periods for legislation for opposition parties to be introduced.

  Mr Riddell: If I can steer clear of legislation—which is a topic all of its own—I think there needs to be greater opportunity for 45-minute discussions. The classic one on which all parties should give their views now is the private equity issue, which is very topical. All the papers—to reinforce Nick's point—have done an excellent job of explaining what it is. They have done a really good job but it has not come up here. It may do. Let us see what happens at noon. But that would be an example. I think it is an interesting balance between what opposition parties get formally and what backbenchers are allowed to do. One of the things which has gone wrong in the last 20 years, which I am sure Sir Nicholas would agree, is that opposition parties still have their days on opposition days but the demise of the backbench order motions—apart from Westminster Hall, which is important—

  Mr White: Private Members' motions and things like that.

  Mr Riddell: Yes. It would also give private Members the opportunity to raise a topic for short discussion. Some of this could be done within existing procedures. I think the Speaker has the power to do it more often but, in a sense, this is going to annoy the Government whips in doing it, in saying "Okay, you might lose two hours. Tough" but there has to be a greater willingness to do that. I think we also need procedural changes, like in the Australian Parliament. Legislation is in a slightly different category and I think the whole private Member's bill thing needs to be looked at and how rational the hurdles are on that. I certainly think, both for backbenchers and opposition parties, there should be more scope to raise topical matters but not in the context necessarily of lengthy debates.

  Q17  Ms Butler: We have talked around the topicality issue quite well, as to how we bring what is happening in the outside world, if you like, into Parliament and how we can facilitate that. The other thing I wanted to look at—and you have touched on it a little bit—is not only the role of the backbenchers but the role of your individual MPs. You talked about how you might admire an MP because they are quite well known and quite well-liked in their constituency but not that well-known in Parliament. How do we balance that? Because I kind of feel that if we had a list of your perfect backbench MP and a list of your perfect personal and individual MP, the two would not marry, or that it would be almost impossible to fulfil that role and I wonder what would be your list of your perfect MP and your perfect backbencher. Nick, your idea of podcasting and putting that on your website is something that we are doing. Part of the problem which we do not often explain is that to be in the House and to contribute to a debate you basically have to allocate the whole day. It means that you could be there for five or six hours before you are called and that means that you would not be able to fulfil your list of your ideal MP because you are busy trying to fulfil your list as your ideal backbencher. How would you see the two marrying?

  Mr Robinson: Let me answer that in a slightly different way from the way you put it. I guess the test we all have is: What difference did I make today? What difference did it make that I existed or I was elected? My fear, to pick up on a point Peter made earlier, is that MPs have got much, much better under pressure on them from the whips about sending 10,000 letters out. The question is: What difference on the floor of the House? If you want to be reported, what difference did it make that you were there? What intervention did you make, what point did you raise to attention that would not otherwise have been mentioned? It seems to me that if political coverage is not just to be about ministers and their opposition, if political journalism is not just about ringing special advisers and press officers, if television coverage is not just about existing star names, that has to be the test: What difference did you make? How did you hold somebody to account who would not otherwise have raised a point which should have been made previously? I appear, and will do this lunchtime, regularly on the television coverage of Prime Minister's Questions and the e-mails we get are of despair from viewers: "Why on earth was that question raised? Why on earth was this question that we are all worried about or are talking about not raised?" Peter raised private equity. Will reform of the stock market, which is today worrying people about the future of their jobs, be raised today on the floor of the House in half an hour of Question Time?

  Q18  Ann Coffey: It will now, I suspect.

  Mr Robinson: Or will there be a question saying, "I would like to congratulate the Prime Minister"—or attack the Prime Minister—"on the following"? Do you look in the mirror, forgive me, as well as look at the media?

  Q19  Chairman: I accept we need greater topicality and greater control of the House by backbenchers. But do not forget there are plenty of occasions where these things may well have been raised but they do not get reported at all. It is frustrating—it has been a frustration for me for 18 years, and I am sure it is a frustration for Theresa as a frontbencher now in opposition—the opposition raise all sorts of issues in short debates, not long ones, in opposition time. They do make a difference, put the minister on the spot, but very rarely do they get reported.

  Mr White: But being reported is not the same as making a difference. You are here to make a difference. You are being reported in order to assist you getting re-elected, in an instrumental sense. You can make a difference but you do not have to be reported whether it is a backbench intervention or anything else. You are seen by your colleagues and hopefully feared by ministers who think, "Oh, damn, it's him." Reporting is not, it seems to me, the primary criterion. I agree with my colleagues: lots of things have happened in the last 20 years which have enabled backbenchers to do things in a more effective way, to hold the Executive to account—which is what they are there for—although I tend to have a view that the family-friendly hours reforms have also given a lot of instruments to the whips and to the Executive branch.


 
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