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

Examination of Witnesses (Question 40)


28 FEBRUARY 2007

  Q40  Chairman: One of the things that irritates me and always has done is that when you have made the decision about a statement in the House, information about this can then seep out. Sometimes it seeps out in an unauthorised way, which is what happened with the Iraq troop drawdown last week, when I know for certain it was not authorised or initiated by senior ministers. Sometimes it is initiated and authorised by senior ministers. If we were much more disciplined in ensuring that there was an element of the first people to know, not the last people, were Parliament, would there not be more coverage of those announcements?

  Mr Riddell: Yes.

  Mr White: Yes.

  Mr Robinson: The first test we have on stories is: "Didn't I read that yesterday? Didn't I already know it? Why should I cover it?"

  Mr Riddell: That is an argument against your colleagues of pre-briefing. If we are going to be pre-briefed, we are going to write the story, of course we are. I remember classically, very early on in the Government, when the Financial Services Authority was being set up, that there was a thing on the annunciator, because it was very market sensitive: "Bank of England statement by the Chancellor". That got a lot of coverage because it genuinely had not been pre-briefed.

  Mr White: It is a function of 24/7, of fighting for your bit of time and ministers sometimes thinking: "This won't get in the papers because there is a big event tomorrow so I'd better pre-brief it so it will get into the morning papers."

  Mr Robinson: I think it is based on a ten-year-old view. It was Alastair Campbell who was a master of this, and the idea was that you would get the same bit of news on for days running: you would preview it, then the adverse feeds and then you have the reaction. The newly competitive media say, after the pre-brief: "We've already heard it. We won't go to the speech." It is a change, even in a decade.

  Chairman: When I had to execute a tiny manoeuvre in respect of the new voting system, which is now the old one.

  Sir Nicholas Winterton: Very gracefully done.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. Because I kept it quiet, because I was working out what to say until that morning, there was some disproportionate interest in what I was saying both from the House, because the House thought this was a bit of sport, and the journalists upstairs too. May I thank you three very much indeed for what has been an extremely useful conversation which we hope will be reflected in a relevant select committee report and some changes then.

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