Puttnam calls for greater media access to Parliament

By David Rose

The Government is facing demands to open up Parliament to more
regional, weekly and magazine journalists to improve its coverage.

A committee of Parliamentarians and journalists also called this
week for a relaxation of the rules restricting television coverage, and
for consideration to be given to lifting the ban on still photographs
of the Commons chamber.

To help reporters, the Hansard Society
Commission on the Communication of Parliamentary Democracy, chaired by
Lord Puttnam, recommended setting up a communications department to
manage, edit and update a news-based Parliamentary website.

The
report follows complaints from journalists outside the “Westminster
village” that they find it difficult to obtain media passes, while
broadcasters have reduced their Parliamentary coverage because of
restrictions on the camera shots they can take.

The Puttnam
Commission wants the rules to be relaxed to permit more reaction shots,
the use of close-ups, more panning shots of backbenchers, walking shots
and interviews with relevant persons other than MPs.

Lord Puttnam
said he would submit the committee’s recommendations to the Government.
However, it is unlikely many of them will find favour. The BBC has
failed in the past to secure any dramatic change in the rules
restricting camera shots, while the call for greater access for
journalists comes at a time when security is being tightened.

The
300-plus journalists in the Parliamentary Press Gallery are vetted
before they are granted passes. Other journalists have to obtain day
passes before they are granted access to cover select committees.

The
Puttnam Commission, however, said arbitrary restrictions on reporting
must be swept aside if Parliament reporting was to improve.

“An increased number of journalist passes need to be issued to reflect the extraordinary expansion of the media,”

it
said. “At present, web-based journalists, subject-specialist
journalists and others have told us they find it difficult to obtain
passes and thus access to the precincts.

“If Parliament wants more coverage and less of the ‘Westminster village’ mentality
to dominate the way it is reported, it is clearly in the institution’s
interests to open its doors to those outside the traditional group of
broadcasters and newspapers. There should be a presumption of access,
not a presumption of exclusion.”

In evidence, a number of editors
and journalists called for Parliament to be more active in guiding
reporters. The Commission responded with the call for a Communications
Department to manage a news-based website. It said: “In a frantic world
of deadlines and limited time, it is not surprising – as was admitted
by many journalists who spoke to us – that good Parliamentary stories
are so often missed. It is also not surprising that the well-packaged
Government story is more readily picked up.

“Parliament also has
to accept that media organisations are much leaner than they used to
be, and can no longer spare journalists to spend their time in the
gallery or a committee room in the hope of coming across a story.

“Journalists
pick up stories from their contacts, from official press officers and
from one another, not from long hours sitting expectantly with a
notepad in the gallery. These are the realities of the modern media and
Parliament has to adapt to them if its profile is to rise.”

Journalists
on the Commission were Peter Riddell, chief political commentator for
The Times, Matthew d’Ancona, deputy editor of The Sunday Telegraph,
David Yelland, former editor of The Sun, Martin Linton, MP and former
journalist on The Guardian, and broadcasters John Sergeant and Jackie
Ashley, who was vice-chair.

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