Straw survey chronicles 'decline of press coverage': Donald Macintyre studies factors which led to changes in parliamentary reporting

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Indy Politics
A BIG decline in newspaper coverage of parliamentary debates is threatening to undermine 'confidence in the democratic process', according to a study published yesterday by Jack Straw, Labour's environment spokesman.

It draws attention to a marked decline in the quantity of daily reporting of Parliament in broadsheet newspapers over the past five years, in some cases to a quarter of what it was before.

Mr Straw's survey highlights a decline which has seen reporting of Parliament fall from between 400 and 800 lines in the Times and between 300 and 700 lines in the Guardian to fewer than 100 lines in each paper by 1992.

He points out that the fall has coincided with a sharp increase in the price of Hansard - the official verbatim account of parliamentary proceedings. It cost 12p in 1970 compared with pounds 7.50 today.

He says there are two main reasons why the reduction in press coverage matters: Firstly, 'it is harder and harder for backbench members on both sides of the House to get any coverage for the argument which they make on behalf of their constituents and their parties'.

Mr Straw contends this is 'not just a matter of satisfying egos as some newspaper executives seem to think', but a 'key part of the democratic process and of great importance that where MPs make a case that is worth reporting, it is reported'.

Secondly, 'public confidence in the democratic process as a whole is undermined if the voters - and secondary school pupils - cannot watch it operate as a process, where a case is argued through and tested'.

He says professional journalists' probing in no sense approaches the scrutiny of an argument in the House of Commons by effective opponents. But less attention is given to serious contributions in the Chamber.

Mr Straw however praised the Independent's 'Inside Parliament' column, saying: 'The Stephen Goodwin column is at least a serious effort to have protected space of the reporting of parliamentary debates. It would be good to see it extended in your paper and also to other papers.'

He lists four factors behind the decline:

The televising of Parliament since 1989. Mr Straw says there is a 'double paradox' since press reporting concentrates on set piece events, like Prime Minister's Questions, which are televised. This has reinforced the Commons' image as a 'slanging and shouting match'.

A delayed reaction to the Thatcher years in which the Government was guaranteed a large majority. This is 'ironic', since Commons debate now has a much more significant effect given a government majority of only 17.

The retirement of a number of political editors who had been 'brought up on gallery reporting'.

A change in behaviour of MPs who, according to Mr Straw, now resort to press releases because of the decline in parliamentary reporting.

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