HC Deb 30 August 1880 vol 256 cc734-43

(3.) £300, Houses of Parliament.


said, he much regretted that this Vote could not be moved by his right hon. Friend the First Commissioner of Works (Mr. Adam), who, in concert with Mr. Speaker and some other Gentleman, had paid much attention to the matter. It would be in the recollection of many hon. Members that in the year 1878 a Committee of that House was appointed to consider the whole question of Parliamentary Reporting. That Committee sat during the whole of that Session, and in the year 1870 they finally agreed upon a Report in which they stated that the arrangements for reporting the de- bates in the House could not be considered satisfactory. There were only 19 front seats from which it was practicable to get a satisfactory report; of those 19 seats 15 were occupied by the representatives of the London Press, leaving but four others. Of these, three were occupied by Press agencies, who supplied the Provincial papers, and the last by a reporter representing Mr. Hansard. Considering the vast importance of the Provincial Press, it was impossible to consider that this was a satisfactory arrangement. The Committee, therefore, recommended that the front seats should be allotted only to those who were occupied in taking notes, and that the sides of the Gallery on each side up to the doors should be added to the Press Gallery, and the Vote he was now moving was for the purpose of carrying out that recommendation. He believed he might say that it was the intention of the late Government to have proposed a similar Vote; but that Government, like the present, had no desire to press the Vote upon the House, and desired to be guided only by the feeling and opinion of the House. He could not disguise from the Committee that this proposal would diminish the present inadequate accommodation for hon. Members by about 22 seats. And the question to be decided was, whether the importance of improving the accommodation for the reporters of the Provincial Press was sufficiently great to counterbalance the disadvantage of lessening still further the present inadequate accommodation for hon. Members. With regard to the allotment of seats, if this Vote should be sanctioned, he was authorized by Mr. Speaker to state that he would be prepared, in their allotment, to act as far as possible in accordance with the recommendations of the Select Committee on Parliamentary Reporting, and to give preference to those Provincial newspapers which would combine for full reports, so that one seat should be occupied by the representatives of two or three or more newspapers. He had only further to add that the Government was perfectly prepared to carry out the decision of the Committee, whatever that might be.


said, as one of the Select Committee who examined into this question, he might, perhaps, be allowed to state that the conclusion arrived at by himself and his Colleagues was that it was absolutely necessary to take some steps to improve the position of the Provincial Press, which, there could be no doubt, had greatly changed its position since the original allotment of seats to the London Press. Several plans were proposed to them of bringing forward and enlarging the Gallery; but they were all of them most expensive, and it was in each case doubtful whether the improved accommodation gained would be sufficient to compensate for the outlay. The proposal of the Committee now to be carried into effect was, on the contrary, one which could be carried into effect at very small cost; and, if not successful, the Gallery could be easily restored to its present position. In fact, the proposal was merely to move the screens from their present position to the side doors; and if it was found, after a year's experience, that the House did suffer from the loss of room, nothing would be easier than to move the screens back again.


said, he did not rise to oppose the Vote because the sum asked for was but a small one and the experiment was worth trying. At the same time, he could not help expressing his opinion that this alteration, as a means of redressing the evils under which the reporting of the House now suffered, was a movement entirely in the wrong direction. He entirely agreed that the Provincial Press had a grievance, when its relative importance in regard to the London Press was considered, and that their claims to seats in the Gallery was altogether one which would not be resisted, because it was irresistable. It must be evident to the Committee, on the other hand, that there was no limit to the number of applications they would undoubtedly receive. Year by year the number of newspapers in the Provinces increased, and if each was to have a seat in the Gallery, the reporters would presently occupy not merely the seats up to the door, but which extended considerably further down the side Galleries. That was one reason why he hesitated in carrying out the Report of the Committee. Another was that of the seats; if the Gallery were increased, the competition for them and the rivalry amongst the newspapers would be very great. Nobody, however, could help confessing that at present their reporting was in a most unsatisfactory condition. There were only two newspapers in London which, practically, gave anything like a satisfactory report of what happened in the House; and even those two fell short, and must fall very far short, of what the majority of Members must think desirable, and even necessary, for the public at large, in order that they might know what was going on in that House. The gentlemen who made the selection which was now necessary of what was to be reported must inevitably be at variance with large sections of the public outside, and discussions which those outsiders wished to read were often precisely those which were omitted by the reporters in the Gallery. He did not mean to say that the selection was not a right and sound one, and that the most important parts of each debate were not given; but merely that the parts omitted were exactly those which large minorities throughout the country wished to read. As it appeared to him, the true solution of this difficulty was the plan suggested by a gentleman who gave evidence before the Select Committee, and that was the institution of verbatim reporting by the authority, and under the direction, of the House itself. He might explain, for the benefit of those Members who had not read the evidence, that the proposition did not contemplate the printing of the report by the House. The proposition of this gentleman, who appeared before the Committee, and guaranteed to carry his plan into execution if he was allowed two seats in the Gallery, was that there should be a certain number of reporters who would take down word for word everything that was said. They would be relieved at intervals of a quarter of an hour, or, at most, half-an-hour, during the whole evening; and they would then at once proceed to transcribe their notes upon flimsy, which would be circulated to the newspaper offices, half-hour by half-hour, in London, and could thence, of course, be easily telegraphed to the country newspapers. Each newspaper, having in that way its own verbatim report, would proceed to select the parts it required, while the newspapers would be in possession of a full and absolute account of all that went on in the House, with which, if they still retained their present staffs, they could, if they pleased, supplement their own reports. The Select Committee, no doubt, paid great attention to the matter; but it seemed to him that the place they suggested as an experiment would not at all do what was wanted, and was merely a stop-gap which would satisfy one or two Provincial journals. It would not give what the country wanted—the reproduction, day by day, of their debates, affording a full and faithful account of what was going on there to all who were interested in their political life. He thought he only expressed the feeling of every Member when he said that they had a right to be extremely dissatisfied with the present arrangements. A most extraordinary revelation was made before the Select Committee. It appeared that the report in The Times newspaper, which was, at any rate, the foundation, if not the body, of all that appeared in Hansard, was regulated according to the discretion of one gentleman. He did not suggest for one moment that that gentleman had not had large experience, and did not exercise enormous discretion, and did not perform his duties in a most conscientious way; but yet what an extraordinary position that House was in—that all that was said there should be thus filtrated through the mind of this particular reporter, to be cut down, or suppressed, or reproduced as he chose, for the edification of the people. That he did not think was right. At the same time, he was sure that the plan now proposed was quite inadequate; and, although he did not wish to oppose the Vote, he was quite sure the plan would not satisfy the exigencies of the situation.


said, it was curious to watch how, from time to time, this question of verbatim reporting cropped up in the House, and how very beautiful and fine the proposal looked at first, and yet how it crumbled away when it was handled. In the last Parliament the present Lord Sudeley very manfully, a very few weeks before he was called to "another place"—he did not, of course, mean that that elevation was the reward of his manfulness— introduced the subject to the House, and they had a most interesting debate, in which the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. John Bright), the present Prime Minister (Mr. Gladstone), and many leading Members on both sides of the House spoke. The result of it all was that they came to the conclusion that this was one of those very nice theories which were perfectly impracticable, and which had ugly sides to them as well as more attractive ones. He must own that he shuddered at his hon. Friend's idea of a verbatim report. He knew they were all guilty in the way of diffuseness of iteration; even in the way of bad grammar. He was conscious that they all sometimes used adjectives and substantives in the wrong place, and that they mixed their numbers, and were guilty, in fact, of all conceivable and unconceivable errors; but still, why, even if they did commit these faults, should they be pilloried for their ignorance and blundering to all posterity, when, after all, they were only trying to do their best? There was, perhaps, a deep statesmanship in his hon. Friend's recommendation. That House had been much exercised in the present Parliament, and still more so in the last, by a desire to get rid of a something which was called Obstruction. Perhaps, then, this plan of his hon. Friend was a deep design to bring this so-called Obstruction to the bar of public opinion by letting the world at large see how much could be spun out of a very little material. Perhaps that was as good a way of getting rid of Obstruction as the Committee which sat in 1879 had hit off, and the value of whose work he left the House itself to estimate. His hon. Friend, however, seemed to think that their reporting was in a dreadful way because it was— as he averred—in the hands of one gentleman, who only allowed certain things to be known to the country. Was not his own assertion, however, a proof that the law of supply and demand was being as usual followed out. They might depend upon it that the information sent out by the intelligent men of the world who filled the Press Gallery was the information which the country liked best, and, therefore, bought. How to sell the papers best was the problem they had to solve. Of course, all of us Members had special subjects in which they took particular interest, and, of course, they were annoyed not to see them in the paper next morning. But what was the common-sense way of getting over that difficulty? Surely, to have these extra seats in which the special papers might have places whenever a debate in which their readers took great interest arose. But what did his hon. Friend propose? That a mass of flimsy should be produced in the Gallery. He ought to have explained that he used the word in a technical sense as descriptive of the extreme thinness of the paper, as else an impression might be produced in the innocent minds of many hon. Members that it was a reflection on the quality of their debates. Then he proposed that this mass should be sent round to all the papers, and out of that great mass the newspapers were then to cook down their reports for the next day. He had not told them where the staff was to be found for that work, nor how time was to be made for the cooking process. The public were, therefore, able at 8 o'clock in the morning to get reports of what had gone on in the House all night, because the cooking process now went on the Gallery itself, and the printer got no more than he wanted to print. Everybody must know that if this great bulk of flimsy were sent to the newspapers there would never be time for this subtracting and reducing. They might, perhaps, after a time, get a more full and accurate report than before; but then it would not be in Wednesday's Times that the debate of Tuesday came out, but the debate of Monday. As to the proposition itself, he was glad to hear from his hon. Friend the Member for Midhurst (Sir Henry Holland) that only a shifting of the screens was proposed. They had heard something of a structural alteration. That might be desirable or undesirable in itself; but certainly it was undesirable that such an important alteration should be adopted at a very late period of the Session. As it was merely a proposal to shift the screens and to give a few more seats to the reporters, he thought the Committee should cheerfully adopt it. He hoped also that the reporters themselves; who were as much interested as the Members themselves in the proper reproduction of their debates, would also seriously consider the improvement of their debates. He must protest, however, as he had always done, against the tyranny of loading the already over-burdened world with the task of wading every day through the verbatim reports of the debates in that House.


was glad the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Beresford Hope) did not conclude by opposing the Vote, as he was afraid he was going to do, for all his observations tended directly that way. He entirely approved of this proposition. It was not a question of whether what they were proposing was actually the best thing that could be done, but simply of what could be easily done as an imperfect act of justice to the Provincial Press, which had been very ill-used for a great many years. They had asked for admission to the Gallery for a very long while; and, now that it was proposed, however insufficiently, to give it them, he hoped the Committee would put no obstacles in the way.


said, he wished, as a Member of the Committee which sat to inquire into the system of reporting, to make a few remarks. The facts were that the London newspapers were directly represented by reporters who occupied seats in the best positions in the Gallery, while the Provincial papers were indirectly represented by associations, whose reporters were relegated to, perhaps, the very worst positions. The main contention of the Provincial newspapers was that they should have assigned to their representatives seats from which they could see and hear better than they could at present. The Committee suggested, as a compromise, that, in addition to giving to the Press Associations, which represented the Provincial Press generally, better accommodation, seats should be set apart for such of the large Provincial newspapers as chose to combine for special reports. He thought that if that was done a great deal of the discontent at present existing would be removed, inasmuch as the Provincial newspapers would secure a little more of direct representation in the Gallery than they now enjoyed. That, he thought, would be the best thing to be done in the circumstances. As far as a verbatim report, produced in the way proposed by the hon. Member for Liskeard (Mr. Courtney) was concerned, he thought it would be found impracticable. A complete report of everything that was said in the House would be unusable by Provincial papers. Hon. Members might not be aware that, for an ordinary Sitting, such a report would fill about 32 columns of The Times. He did not know how a subeditor of a Provincial newspaper could deal with and despatch from London such a mass of "flimsy" in time to publish, on the following morning, an adequate and equally-balanced report of the whole proceedings. If an official report was adopted, it would be found necessary to follow the plan adopted in the French, American, and some other foreign Legislatures, of preparing, in addition to a verbatim report, a full report, a condensed report, and a summary. To give to the Provincial papers only a verbatim report would be to give them a something which would be useless, in that there would not be time in which to deal with it in a satisfactory manner. He ventured to say that if any newspaper published a report of all that was said in Parliament it would live three months. There was no more unsaleable matter printed in newspapers than reports of Parliamentary debates. Newspaper managers and reporters had to deal with Parliamentary debates in the interest of their properties, and in the interest of the public, as well as of Members. As far as he was personally concerned, he could only express surprise that, in the circumstances, the reports in the London newspapers were so full and accurate as they were. As far as the Provincial Press was concerned, the chief reason for not printing fuller reports of Parliamentary debates was that they would not sell.


said, he thought the proposal to provide a larger number of reporters' seats a remarkably good one; but he could not admit that the apportionment of the present seats was one to be commended. He could see no reason why the same amount of room should be given to The Daily News and The Daily Telegraph, which did not report the debates, as to The Times, which did. If a portion of the room were given to the two first papers he had named were taken from them, it would give additional accommodation in that part of the Gallery which was best adapted for seeing and hearing what was going forward. As far as the proposal to give preference in the re-arrangement of the Gallery to such papers as would combine in giving full reports was concerned, he did not think much would be gained. The leading papers in the Three Kingdoms would naturally wish, while giving prominence to debates on Imperial questions, to report at length discussions affecting their own localities; and it would easily be seen that a long report of a debate on an Irish question would have very little interest to Scotch or English Leaders, and vice versa. On the whole, he thought the question had not been sufficiently considered, and he would suggest that it should be allowed to stand over until next Session.

Vote agreed to.

(4.) £21,742, Public Works Office, Ireland.