Parliament is Supreme not the Press

When I was ejected from the Speaker’s Corridor back in 2002, fellow denizens of the press gallery looked on with mild amusement. There were no notebooks and microphones at the ready to record my dismissal from the corridors of power. I did, however, detect a snicker or two as I was escorted past an assembling scrum.

It mattered not to the legislature dress code cops that my shirt was white and freshly laundered, my slacks grey and neatly pressed, my hair combed, my shoes shined, my manner courteous – and my neat wind-breaker carried the Union Club crest. Alas, cleanliness may well be next to Godliness, but in the BC Legislature precinct, it goes for naught unless enhanced with jacket and tie.

Grumpily, I moved along the corridor to then-Clerk George MacMinn’s office seeking temporary refuge and maybe a little tea and sympathy.

“George,” I said, “this is outrageous. I’ve just been tossed out of the Speaker’s Corridor … never in 30 years have I …”

“Why?” interrupted George.

“Because I’m not wearing a jacket and tie.”

“Quite right then, wouldn’t you say? Dress code says shirt, tie and jacket. You’re in violation. Quite proper they should ask you to leave.”

No sympathy and no tea either, but I did manage a free cup of coffee before making a run for the exit stairs and freedom. Clown or curmudgeon, makes no difference when the codes and rules authorized by the full Legislature are at risk. I could have staged a sit-in, have demanded then-Speaker Claude Richmond relax the rules to accommodate an ageing scribe. But that would have gained me less sympathy than I received from the Clerk MacMinn and could have led to my physical removal from the precinct, possible arrest and possible charges of showing contempt for the legislature. All three options would have been available had my dress code whimpers slopped over to be construed as contempt for the legislature.

That institution packs a lot of muscle; it has vast powers to protect itself from intruders, royal or common. And, it reserves the right to toss all media out on its collective ear if the spirit so moves it. Not that it will do that in this day and age. We reporters of things political have wangled our way so deep into the system that we’re an unelected part of it. We know the pols need us, can’t function without us – and on occasion, we push that relationship to the limit. But we need to tread this status with care because ancient rights, historic powers are still in play

The centuries have brought significant changes in the tolerance of politicians for the press. There was a time when it was against the law to distribute outside parliament anything that had been said or written inside. In 1640, a fellow named “Overton, the stationer” was ordered to kneel and beg for mercy in the British House of Commons because he had “falsely printed an Order of the House, without the authority of this House.”

Called before the assembly, Overton knelt in quivering repentance as “Mr. Speaker told him that his offence was of a high nature to presume, upon his own authority, to print any Order of this House, and not only so, but to misprint it …” Poor Overton, he’d not only broken the rules; he had also botched the print job.

Then there was Lord Digby who had printed and distributed copies of a speech he had given in the house. Like Overton, he was called to account and forced to listen as: “The Commons resolved that no Member of the House shall either give a copy or publish in print, anything that he shall speak here, without leave of the House.” Digby’s pamphlet was ordered to be burned “publickly (cct) by the hands of the common hangman.”

Remnants on the ban imposed by the first parliaments on any note taking in the public galleries remain to this day. Only in the press gallery can accredited reporters take notes – and even they have to do their scribbling sitting behind the Speaker and therefore out of sight of, and technically unknown to him.

It may seem silly to hold on to such ancient rules in an era when gavel-to-gavel proceedings are televised; when verbatim reports are flung around the world via the Internet virtually minutes after they are spoken. But maybe we need little reminders that parliamentary democracy was as hard a won thing as the freedom of the press to write about it. We media types need to remind ourselves that while we have earned the right to criticize the institution and its inhabitants, we also have the responsibility to defend its ancient right to make the rules which govern daily proceedings and define standards of conduct and dress, and protect the institution itself from interference, whether by an attention seeker wearing a clown suit or a Royal wearing a crown.

Parliament is supreme, not the press. It makes its own rules from dress code to procedure – and authorizes the Speaker to make sure they are carried out. And it has the power to punish those who choose to challenge its authority.

Many readers will remember the incident during Premier Bill Bennett’s government (1975-1986) when the RCMP, with an approved court order, bugged the telephones in cabinet minister Jim Nielsen’s legislature office, his constituency office and his home – and how all hell broke loose when the bugging was discovered.

Motions were made accusing the RCMP of showing contempt for the legislature. A committee was struck to investigate, and it was agreed that the RCMP, even though acting under a court-approved wiretap, was indeed “in breach of parliamentary privilege.” In more recent times, the highest judicial authority in Canada has ruled that the internal workings of parliament are for parliament alone to decide. And that goes for everything from dress code to rules relating to contempt of the legislative assembly.

The centuries have brought many parliament-press compromises, but it should never be forgotten that when we asked fellow citizens to take a seat in our legislature, we gave them our iron-clad guarantee that they could go about their business without impediment; that they were free to speak without fear of retribution or interference and free to establish whichever rules they thought best for good conduct. Those who report on parliamentary affairs must choose carefully between criticism and contempt. Criticism should be tolerated, always encouraged; contempt, which could threaten the foundations of parliamentary rights and privileges, should always be denied.

Twenty years ago, Christopher Jones writing about “the Press Gallery” in his book The Great Palace said: “Both ladies and gentlemen of the Press are still there strictly against the rules, for those thunderous resolutions which say it is a high crime for the Press to intermeddle with Parliament are still, theoretically, in operation. In 1971, the House did finally decide that although they would not actually enforce the rules, neither would they scrap them. Journalists, therefore, remain part of Parliament, but not in Parliament. It is a compromise both sides find works very well indeed.”

And should continue to work well as long as it is understood who makes the rules and has the untrammeled right to enforce them. Which means that, while I find the dress code a little stuffy, I’ll wear a jacket and tie.

2 comments

  1. I agree Parliament is supreme. It is the highest court in the land. And the Speaker is the highest official of that court.
    But when the federal Liberal caucus ejected two of its members without a vote as prescribed by law the Speaker claimed he was powerless to do anything.

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