To the gentlemen of the Fourth Estate
POLITICAL journalists take centre stage tonight for the 200th anniversary of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES marks the occasion by reviewing a new book detailing the history of reporting MAY 24 1803 saw a landmark ruling by the Speaker of the House of Commons, Charles Abbot.
POLITICAL journalists take centre stage tonight for the 200th anniversary of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES marks the occasion by reviewing a new book detailing the history of reporting
MAY 24 1803 saw a landmark ruling by the Speaker of the House of Commons, Charles Abbot. He ordered that dedicated space be made available for "newswriters" to be able to report the daily debates at Westminster.
It was in 1771 that MPs finally conceded that what they said in Parliament should be reported. Up until then, naughty journalists used to sneak into the public seating areas and have the temerity to take notes and publish what was going on in the name of democracy.
Even so, reporters had no special status in Parliament. They had to turn up very early if they wanted to be sure of getting a seat in the public gallery.
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At the beginning of the 19th century, the Commons did not start sitting until 4pm, allowing merchants, lawyers and city types to earn a day's wages before heading for the Westminster gentleman's club.
The public gallery opened its doors at noon, but the writers who wanted to report on proceedings had to turn up much earlier. Sometimes they were too late.
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On Monday May 23 1803, during the Napoleonic wars, Prime Minister William Pitt was due to speak at the beginning of a two-day debate on the hostilities. Speaker Abbot ruled that the public gallery would not open at noon, but would stay closed until after prayers. Reporters found it impossible to get into the chamber and the newspapers the following morning did not carry the debate.
The Morning Chronicle moaned: "No paper had a single reporter in the House of Commons, so that the debate, we believe, is entirely lost."
MPs, who 32 years earlier had been disdainful of the presence of reporters, were more than a little upset. And Speaker Abbot decided to issue instructions designed to stop the same thing happening again.
He wrote in his diary: "Settled with the Serjeant at Arms . . . that the gallery door should be opened every day, as required, at twelve; and the Serjeant would let the housekeeper understand that the 'newswriters' might be let in their usual places (the back row of the gallery)."
It was, as Andrew Sparrow observes in his new book Obscure Scribblers: A History of Parliamentary Journalism* – published to mark the bicentenary – only a tentative step forward, and Abbot's ruling did not guarantee that the reporters were always able to get into the gallery in the future.
Nevertheless, the Abbot decision marked the first time that Parliament, in any formal sense, acknowledged that reporters performed a positive function and deserved some assistance.
One of the first great parliamentary reporters, from 1830, was Charles Dickens. When he started, the facilities for note-taking were still rudimentary. He was to recall later: "I have worn my knees by writing on them on the old back row of the old gallery of the House of Commons; and I have worn my feet by standing to write in a preposterous pen in the old House of Lords."
Things changed in October 1834 when fire ravaged the Houses of Parliament and the Commons chamber in St Stephen's Chapel was completely destroyed. Parliament moved into temporary accommodation – the Commons sat in the refurbished Court of Requests, where a gallery was set aside for the exclusive use of the Press. Peers met in the Painted Chamber and the front row of the Strangers' Gallery was reserved for reporters.
Architect Charles Barry and designer Augustus Pugin rebuilt the Palace of Westminster – in the new Lords building, opened in 1847, reporters had their own gallery. There was also a reporters' gallery in the Commons, with space behind it set aside for the press.
Nearly 200 years later, newspapers no longer devote reams of space to run of the mill debates, and radio and television simply give "soundbite" remarks from our political leaders.
It is lobby journalists who now reign supreme, able to walk unhindered through the lobbies and corridors of power, collar MPs, and to receive unattributable briefings. While all accredited lobby journalists – including myself – are members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, not all parliamentary journalists are members of the lobby.
Representatives of the fourth estate sit in a horseshoe gallery above the Speaker's chair. Behind the gallery are offices of all the major news organisations, plus a library, bar, cafeteria and formal restaurant.
It's a far cry from 1803.
*Obscure Scribblers, A History of Parliamentary Journalism, by Andrew Sparrow, is published by Politico's, price £20.