“Obscure” — But Once Champions

It may be hard to believe, but there was a time when the people elected to serve their fellow citizens in parliament did everything in their power to prevent the reasons for their decisions being made public. They didn’t mind the ultimate decisions being distributed, but they didn’t want the sometimes-shaky reasoning behind those decisions made public.

Andrew Sparrow writing in his book, “Obscure Scribblers, a History of Parliamentary Journalism,” claims the British House of Commons “tried to stop the publication of debate reports for more than 100 years, not because members were shy about having their names in the papers but because they realized that being reported would render them accountable.”

A week ago, I quoted one of the more outspoken and articulate Members of Parliament, one William Windham, Minister of War in the 1700s when England was at war with France, and a small group of men were gaining modest public readership for their reporting of parliamentary debate. Windham was feeling the sting of criticism from this coterie of scribes once banned from the Chamber, but now, to Windham’s alarm, exercising more freedom of speech than anticipated.

They wanted a return to the good old days when citizens could listen to debates if they could get one of the scarce tickets permitting entry. Reporters could report, but with great care – or risk serious punishment. In 1798, according to Windham, the limited circulation of those pamphlet-sized reports was a daily threat to the life of the government. 

Windham and his followers viewed with dismay what they regarded as an abuse of free speech, even when what was being relayed to the public from the House of Commons was basic reporting on what had been said and by whom. It was a system of reporting that eventually developed into what is named today “Hansard,” the verbatim record of daily debate in western democratic parliaments around the world; a daily record revered for its accuracy.

Windham had no respect for scruffy scribes or 1798 debate publishers. He felt open reporting of debates seriously threatened the elected representative government first dreamed of under the Magna Carta and still fragile. One day he asked parliament what its aim could be in supporting open debate publication and wondered if there could be something sinister behind a move to make parliament more democratic.

He answered his own question by saying the only aim debate publishers could have “must be that of changing the present form of government, and of making it more democratical, for it was calling every day on the public to judge the proceedings of parliament. By these daily publications, people learned to look upon themselves as present at the discussion of parliament and sitting in judgment of them.”

We can look back on these old fights between opposing politicians and most politicians and the press, and be thankful we have come out of it so well. For all their faults, governments mighty and modest serve us reasonably well. But heaven forbid that we should stop complaining when they screw up, as they do from time to time. Like Windham did when saw a critical news leaflet.

When it comes to the press, I’m biased. It was such a vital part of my life for 75-plus turbulent years and enjoyment beyond description. I was fortunate to be a reporter when that is what I was supposed to be – writing just the facts; an opinion columnist when my job was to voice my opinions; and a daily newspaper editor when I shared editorial page responsibility with the publisher and had a talented news writing to consistently made me look a lot better than I was in a treasured occupation.

I’m glad I was where I was when I was. But I’m saddened in recent years to see the press, once the giant of all published news, toppled from its once lofty pedestal by a mob of seemingly always angry, undisciplined, disciples of social media.

2 comments

  1. William Windham, if he is in a position to do so, may be looking down with delight on the current freedom of legislatures from the prying by a pauperized press.

    I can recall when debates at both the federal and provincial levels were fully documented. Now we get only a few crumbs from Question Period.

    Columnists provide a fuller picture of political events, but they don’t spend time watching our politicians. Instead they interview a few, then talk to bureaucrats and backroom operatives.

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