Month: June 2019

With All Our Faults We’re Better Than We Were

“I think that those who report politics, and by and large that would be members of that group of journalists called the lobby (in England; the Press Gallery in Canada), I think they are a very inward-looking, very incestuous bunch of people, who are overly preoccupied with process rather than policies.”

It is something President Trump would like to say today, but his vocabulary can only get him as far as bleated “fake news.” It was the well-known Brit politician Peter Mandelson who voiced that razor-edged criticism in a parliamentary speech a few years back – and he was just re-echoing William Windham, Minister of War in the UK in 1798, who had lamented the quality of press reporting on a war with France.

It was a time when parliamentary proceedings were not supposed to circulate beyond the walls of the debating chamber but were being “smuggled” out to unscrupulous publishers of news sheets.

“Newspaper writers are not the best judges of political affairs,” said Windham. “Their reports are evil in nature” but are being believed as true “by a great mass of readers who are not the most discerning class of society … newspapers are being carried everywhere, read everywhere by persons of very inferior capacities, and in common alehouses and places frequented chiefly by those who were least of all accustomed to reflection, to any great mental efforts …”

Oh dear, oh dear, what a bad bunch my forefathers in the news writing business were, “scattering poison where they could, bringing virtue to discredit … teaching the ignorant and credulous to despise every man and every measure that was respectable …”

Windham said he could not look at a man “of low condition with a newspaper in his hand” without comparing him to “a man who was swallowing poison under the hope of improving his health.”

There are more than 200 years between Windham’s tirade (1798), Mandelson’s scalpel slice-and-dice (2002), and the childlike trumpeting of President Trump to please his base support. But the theme remains unchanged. The masses – the people – could never be expected to understand what politicians were doing or why. And reporters should never be trusted to properly explain a government’s thinking.

For a hundred years or more, the contents of parliamentary debate were confined to parliament. MPs could not publish their speeches without special permission of the House. It was resolved in 1641 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.”

Lord Digby was caught distributing a printed copy of one of his speeches and reprimanded. All copies of his speech were collected and ordered destroyed by “the public hangman” as a gentle warning of what could have been much tougher justice for publicizing a parliamentary speech without permission of the House..

A year later, Sir Edward Dearing had a collection of his speeches printed and in the process of distribution when he was apprehended, expelled from the House, and imprisoned in the Tower “for acting against the honour and privilege of the House.” His speeches were bundled and “the public hangman” ordered to arrange another bonfire.

But the need for the censorship created to keep the King from punishing MPs who spoke against him was slowly diminishing. In 1660, parliament passed a licensing act for regulating printing and printing presses, though debate reporting was still not allowed.

It wasn’t until 1771, after riots, arrests, hasty trials, and imprisonments of printers in the Tower, that the Commons caved and parliamentary reporting as we know it today was established. The House of Lords followed in 1775.

It’s called one of our greatest freedoms – freedom of the press, but one thing has never changed: the lingering suspicion that “the press” can’t really be trusted; that reporters, columnists and editorial writers are told what to write by never-seen editors and publishers once described as “holding power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”.

It isn’t true,but the doubts linger. Not a perfect arrangement, but as De Tocqueville wrote in defence of democracy and our free press: “In order to enjoy the inestimable benefits that the liberties of the press ensures, it is necessary to submit to the inevitable evils that it creates.”

(Andrew Sparrow’s Obscure Scribblers –a history of Parliamentary Journalism, is an entertaining read – if you can find a copy.)

Free Speech – But Be Careful

Thursday, May 30, 2019, should be circled on anniversary calendars, the day 38 members of the Legislative Assembly rose in succession on personal points of privilege to condemn the conduct of Speaker Darryl Plecas. And, failed in their mission.

One or two of the protesting MLAs altered portions of a prepared text, but the majority stayed with an unprecedented flood of identical criticism with most stating he or she had been personally offended. They intoned: “I have become aware of behaviour and conduct undertaken by the Speaker with respect to senior officers and employees of this Legislative Assembly that I believe to be improper and compromises the ability of those officers to independently do their duties.”

The actions referred to had been made public hours earlier with the revelation that Speaker Plecas had authorized the seizure of hard drives from senior staff computers. A seizure, Plecas claimed, he had the power to make anywhere in the Legislature precinct for “security reasons.” He had been reported as saying in interviews earlier that he had the authority to walk into offices and request hard drives from all over the Legislature.

The massed chorus of Liberal MLAs challenged that power with: “I believe that activities undertaken by the Speaker, including the seizure of records including electronic records … constitutes improper conduct with respect to my right as a member of this assembly and impedes my personal freedoms as a member of this House.”

In their final assault, they accused Plecas of the serious offence of breaching “the individual and collective privileges of this House and contempt for this House.”

And, that is just about the most serious charge any MLA can level against another member – or anyone in the public for that matter, including news reporters, pundits, editorial writers, and even lowly bloggers who may slip from fair comment to “bring into contempt” the democracy we all claim to cherish, but hardly understand.

Standing Order 26 in the rules governing conduct in the BC Legislature is brief when it first mentions “privilege.” It simply states: “Whenever any matter of privilege arises, it shall be taken into consideration immediately.” That’s it. No messing around.

Plecas brushed aside the 38 repeated charges and the House adjourned and MLAs began their summer barbecue break.How could he do that?

Immediacy is not the only requirement when dealing with “privilege.” In George MacMinn’s Parliamentary Practice in BC, Volume 3) there’s an advisory note following the actual order. It reads, with a note of despair: “To give a concise definition of privilege would be impossible … There are thousands of Speaker’s decisions on privilege throughout the Commonwealth and an abundance of decisions on the subject in British Columbia.”

He then provides several pages of advice on procedures to be followed “on raising a matter of privilege” and supports that advice with a special 46-page appendix detailing with debates and findings over the years when abuse of privilege has been charged.

Back in the early-90s, an unnamed newspaper ran a lead editorial accusing the Speaker of partisanship. The matter was raised in the Legislature and a motion put forward, mildly stating “this Legislature regrets the publication of the editorial in the newspaper.” A mild rebuke only, but with Speaker Norman Whittaker sounding a warning bell that harsher punishment could have been applied.

He said while no offence could be taken by a newspaper’s attack on government policy, the charges of partisanship against Speakers “of this Legislature … and what it is pleased to call ‘the progressive decadence of the membership’ is unacceptable.”

“The freedom of the press is a precious thing, but newspapers have a responsibility not to exercise that responsibility in such a manner as to bring into contempt our democratic institutions and systems of government.”(BC Journals,Nov 28,1938)

He echoed the warning note that while the House had held back from “calling the author of the article before the Bar of the House” it was an option – and remains an option today – if the Speaker, with support of the Legislature, ever decides to play hardball with “the press.”

Does this mean the Speaker has free reign; that any criticism of his actions could be construed as a breach of privilege in the form of a smear on the House? Speaker Whittaker seemed to think so. He said he was quoting “from a recognized authority on parliamentary practice’’ when he ruled “the Speaker is the representative of the House itself, in its powers, it’s proceedings and its dignity … And reflection, therefore, on the Speaker is a reflection on the House itself …”

Today’s Speaker remains in office until voting day in the next general election. He can only be challenged by “substantive motion” which some experts say could include a non-confidence vote.

But didn’t we witness 30 plus non-confidence votes on May 30? Not really. There may have been numerous attempts to do so, but the Speaker apparently decided they technically failed to meet the specific criteria demanded by the rules – and his ruling cannot be challenged.

And be warned, as you mutter or rage against the goings on under the Big Dome of the Legislature, do not use words that impinge on the dignity of the Speaker or a rank and file MLA. They are “privileged” and protected and the bar of the House is a fearful deterrent.

Stay tuned. Remember the day will come when you can tell them what you really think of their dignity and their decisions with a series of simple ticks on a ballot paper.