The best seats in the House

Today, the Commons press gallery celebrates its 200th birthday. But what would the journalistic giants of the past make of the antics of its present occupants? Our parliamentary sketchwriter, Simon Carr, reports on the colourful life of a unique institution
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The Independent Online

Obviously, the press was banned. At the centre of power there was a mystery, a guild mystery. You couldn't have oiks looking at it, let alone relaying it to the vulgar mass outside. You couldn't have strangers dabbling their inky fingers in the mystery. In the hundreds of years that the House of Commons accreted to itself powers, influence and authority, it sat in virtual secrecy. The great, the good, and even the giddy were able, they felt, to express themselves freely, without fear of public ridicule or direct attention, there in that dark sodality of the governing class.

But there were those who would risk much to get intelligence out. In the 17th century, as the bourgeoisie rose, as newsletters and periodicals increased their influence, as democratic pressures built up a head of steam, news from the centre of the nation's political life came to be in very great demand. Members of the public were allowed into the Strangers' Gallery. Note-taking was forbidden, naturally, but characters such as William Woodfall trained themselves to remember, so it was claimed, eight hours of proceedings, verbatim. These memory men carried their reports to their editors. Verbal reports of speeches were not actionable at law; the danger was in printing them.

In the reign of Charles I, those who committed these horrible offences were summoned to appear in Parliament. They knelt in front of the Speaker's chair to beg forgiveness. Some were fined, one as much as £40 (several years' work). Their illegal reports were burnt by the hangman in New Palace Yard. There was another option: in the following century, a young parliamentary reporter, the Tory Samuel Johnson, simply made up speeches from eye-witness accounts. "Sir, I was never in the Gallery of the House of Commons but once," he said. He never let those "Whig dogs" get the better of a debate. In the end, his ethical imperatives got the better of him and he quit saying he would never again be "accessory to the propagation of falsehood".

This sort of piety was optional. Both the Daily Universal Register (precursor of The Times) and The Observer began life in the late 18th century by taking government money in order to propagate ministerial falsehoods. At the former, the proprietor John Walter's price was £300 - not a huge sum of money even then. Even while parliamentarians were vilifying journalists, they were busy courting them at the same time. Doing one thing and simultaneously doing its opposite is an enduring theme in British politics.

The collective hostility to the press was visceral. In the middle of the 18th century, a Commons motion talked about the "high indignity to, and a notorious breach of privilege of this House for any newswriter to give any account of the debates or other proceedings of the House". Yes, and more to the point, "this House will proceed with the utmost severity against such offenders".

The current chairman of the press gallery, Chris Moncrieff, tells us of the Lord Mayor of London in 1768 who, despite his gout, was a reckless campaigner for press freedom. George III was particularly scandalised: "It is highly necessary that this strange and lawless method of publishing debates should be put a stop to." Alderman Brass Crosby was sent to the Tower, where he arrived "half drunk", swearing and "with a jollity ill-becoming the gravity of his office". But by the natural generosity that we find in so many friends of the press, he saved his captor, Parliament's Serjeant at Arms, from being lynched by the mob along the way.

It was in 1803 that the position of the gallery reporter changed dramatically. A crowd had gathered to hear William Pitt speak about the breakdown of negotiations with Napoleon Bonaparte. The Speaker kept the chamber shut four hours longer than usual and the gathered masses of MPs' friends had the effect of excluding the press from their unreserved seats in the Strangers' Gallery. No reports of Pitt's speech were carried in any newspapers. The recently founded Times led the outcry and on 21 May, the Speaker, showing an admirable modesty of spirit, allowed journalists some reserved seats at the back of the gallery. That was the start of it, 200 years ago today. They had somewhere to sit.

By 1828, the significance of the press had grown to such an extent that Macaulay could write of them, in the Edinburgh Review: "The gallery in which the reporters sit has become the fourth estate of the realm. The publication of the debates, a practice which seemed to the most liberal statesmen of the old school full of danger to the great safeguards of public liberty, is now regarded by many persons as a safeguard, tantamount, and more than tantamount, to all the rest together."

The following year, William Cobbett's Parliamentary Debate, something that had been published for the previous three decades, was renamed after its printer, Thomas Hansard. The House considered the matter occasionally over the next 80 years before Parliament officially adopted Hansard as the record of proceedings.

The fire of 1834 both destroyed the medieval Palace of Westminster and created the modern press gallery. In Sir Charles Barry's new building the press got their own premises above and behind the Speaker's chair. In these raked stalls and on these green benches have sat a number of literary names better known for more serious work - chief among them Charles Dickens. Let Dickens lead you by the hand: "Take care of the stairs, they are none of the best; through this little wicket - there. As soon as your eyes become a little used to the mist of the place and the glare of the chandeliers below you, you will see that some unimportant personage on the ministerial side of the House (to your right hand) is speaking amidst a hum of voices and confusion which would rival Babel, but for the circumstance of its being all in one language."

His descriptions of the House of Commons have a modern ring to them. How "Sir Somebody Something brought four men out of their beds to vote in the majority, three of whom died on their way home again; how the House once divided on the question that fresh candles be now brought in; how the Speaker was once upon a time left in the chair by accident at the conclusion of business, and was obliged to sit in the House by himself for three hours till some Member could be knocked up and brought back again, to move the adjournment."

In Disraeli's day, half the contents of The Times consisted of parliamentary reporting. So compare and contrast such passionate popular interest with the current situation. Today, reporters are freely admitted, the proceedings are broadcast on radio and television, and well below half of anyone under 35 bothers to vote. Access has created indifference. Familiarity has produced its familiar offspring. Mind you, the political class has helped the process along over the past 50 years with their fantastic managerial failures.

Now, politicians say resentfully that parliamentary reporting hardly exists any more; it's all sketchwriting. They mean that it's a trifling business that makes light of something serious, not to say momentous: the machinery of government. As Parliament's influence has decreased and its authority diminished, sketchwriting is one of the most natural journalistic responses to parliamentary life. As a sketchwriter myself, I can confidently say it's the best job in Britain.

You can only imagine the privilege of being able to look down into the chamber and personally witness the directors of Britain's largest company attending their vast, dysfunctional board meeting. These are the people responsible for spending £400bn of our money every year. When you consider the way in which much of it is spent, it's hard not to laugh. The alternative is a weeping fit, perhaps with a little screaming added in.

Things have changed enormously in the past generation. The sketches of the Fifties and Sixties were, for any levity, faithful and respectful accounts of the proceedings compared with the sketches of today. There seems to have been something of a "step change", as politicians like to say.

The other day, the saintly Lady Young was concluding her campaign to outlaw what she called "buggery". I asked her whether she had any personal experience of buggery. That couldn't have happened until very recently. The terms in which the Daily Mail's Quentin Letts described the new Speaker established new frontiers; no one had ever mocked a Speaker before; they were the last representatives of the ancient mystery, existing in a constitutional Elysium. The veil has been decisively ripped away.

And it comes back the other way. David Blunkett stood at the despatch box and denounced Matthew Parris of The Times for viciousness. That was wounding; Blunkett really knows how to hurt. I was the vicious sketchwriter, not Matthew! Me! I didn't recover from his insult until Blunkett denounced me in my turn over half a column in Hansard. What that did for the dignity and majesty of Parliament is another question.

Do the MPs mind this ostentatious lack of respect? Most affect nonchalance, but some can't. I don't get Christmas cards from John Prescott or Harriet Harman - or even Lady Young. And the Prime Minister was half way through shaking my hand before he realised who I was; his face turned into a Rik Mayall mask of exasperated disgust. For many others, perhaps, being insulted is a little less worse than not being noticed at all.

Despite these comic turns, the House retains a power of its own. It is, even in these degraded days, a magnificent institution. When Giles Coren dropped his pen down into the chamber itself, he rushed out of the press gallery, covered in confusion and embarrassment. If one of the doorkeepers - marvellous in white tie and gold seal - tells you off for talking too loudly or standing in the wrong place, your self-esteem drops sharply for a moment. If the phone goes off, its owner, even if the most senior member of the gallery, will leap for the door. Parliament still has the power to move its cynics, critics and sceptics.

When you look down into the chamber on a day of great moment - and such moments do occur - there is a tangible charge in the place that you get nowhere else. Each member, in Dickens's half-ironic words, is "concentrating in his own person the wisdom of a constituency". And in these ordinary men and women, our Members of Parliament, we witness one of Britain's greatest traditions, that of representative government, something that goes back at least to the 12th century.

And if they behave badly in the House of Commons, imagine how badly they'd behave if they didn't have to present themselves there, in public, before their opponents and enemies, and (God forgive us) the press.