Ask no questions, hear more lies: The decline in newspaper coverage of the cut and thrust of the Commons is slowly eroding our democracy, says Jack Straw

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The Independent Online
I SPOKE to a national housing conference in Brighton last Wednesday. One thousand delegates stood as I entered, clapping as I walked to the podium. The hall was plunged into darkness, the spotlights turned on me, the loudspeakers brought into action. The audience laughed at a couple of jokes, applauded when I sat down, and asked six relatively straightforward questions. After an hour, they went to coffee and I went back to London.

I would not have got off so lightly in the Chamber of the House of Commons. Mid-paragraph, mid-sentence, or even mid-word, a Tory MP would have been on his feet, with some awkward question. But, when you make a speech, there is one thing worse than interventions. No interventions. No one listening, just talking among themselves, on your own side as well as the other.

The experience of speaking from the dispatch box was well described by one of this century's greatest parliamentary debaters, Iain Macleod. 'Never forget,' he said, 'though you have the opposition in front of you, you have the enemy all around.' If you score from the half-way line your colleagues are the first to cheer. If you miss an open goal, they are the last to forget.

Those of us who speak from the front benches of the Commons know that there is no other situation in which our argument can be tested to such a degree, and, if it is weak, to destruction. Not even the most professional interrogation by newspaper or television journalists approaches the scrutiny an argument, and its advocate, can undergo in the Commons chamber. It is there that reputations are made, and lost. If you want a hearing, you have to make an argument. On other platforms you can get away with assertion.

That is why the decline in press coverage of parliamentary debates, which I highlighted in a report last week, is so disturbing. Until the late 1980s, the broadsheet press devoted substantial space to the straightforward reporting of Parliament. Those that wanted a verbatim account could ask in their library for Hansard, or for the price of a couple of Mars bars, could buy a copy. A daily Hansard cost just 12p in 1970, pounds 7.50 now.

In the past five years, systematic reporting of debate has all but been abandoned. Between 1933 and 1988, debates took between 400 and 800 lines each day in the Times, and between 300 and 700 lines in the Guardian. By 1992 coverage was fewer than 100 lines in both papers. The Daily Telegraph has halved its coverage. The Financial Times has just announced the end of its politics page altogether. The Independent's coverage of debates is now the best - but, when it launched in 1986, it started the fashion of reporting more back-stairs politics, less debate.

There are plenty of boring, tedious speeches in the Commons. But the ebb and flow of argument shifts policies and attitudes. No Labour MP, for example, could be intellectually immune from the demolition job effected on the party's unilateralist policy in the early 1980s by Tories such as Michael Heseltine. Equally, no Tory MP could ignore Tam Dalyell's relentless attempts to discover the truth about the sinking of the Belgrano. The Maastricht debates hardened sentiment on both sides against economic and monetary union.

Argument lies at the heart of the democratic system. It is the only alternative to violence. But nations only gradually acquire the ability to argue. The Croatian journalist, Slavenka Drakulic, makes this case with great poignancy in her book, Balkan Express. 'Recently,' she wrote, 'an American friend of mine asked me how it happened that the most liberal and best-off Communist country (Yugoslavia) was the one that now had the war. . . The answer is so simple that I'm almost ashamed of it. We traded our freedom for Italian shoes. We didn't build a political underground of people with liberal, democratic values . . . not because it was impossible, but on the contrary, because the repression was not hard enough to produce the need for it.' The nations of the former Yugoslavia were trained for only one method of resolving conflict - civil war, and slaughter.

If people are to have confidence in the democratic system, they must be able to see it in operation, to follow the argument. All governments tell people what to do. Only in functioning democracies can people demand an answer to the question 'why?'.

What are the reasons for the decline in parliamentary reporting? Some editors have argued that there has been a decline in the quality of debate, but no evidence supports this. Another argument is that, now Parliament has admitted cameras, there is no need to report what is anyway available on television. Yet the headline stories in newspapers are the same as the television highlights. The press duplicates television, rather than complementing it. The large majorities of the Thatcher years have played a part, it is said. Yet the Government's majority has been cut to 17, and what happens in the chamber has a more significant effect than at any time since 1979.

The decline of parliamentary reporting reflects a deeper problem: a shift in attitudes from citizen to consumer, from a society where people's relationships are defined by their sense of democratic rights and duties, to one where almost every relationship is defined as if it involved a cash transaction. So patients, passengers, claimants, students (maybe prisoners soon) are all called 'cus tomers'. This leads, in turn, to a very narrow view of politics, in which people ask, 'what's in it for me, now?'.

But what these 'customers' can get, from the NHS, public transport, or the Department of Social Security, is determined not by them, but by government. And there are now huge areas of public service for which ministers are in practice no longer accountable. The curiosity is that exactly those newspapers in the vanguard of calling for written constitutions and bills of rights to protect our democracy should be so complicit in its erosion.

They will say: 'Oh, we've got our Whitehall correspondent instead, looking at where the real power lies.' But one reporter, however good, is no substitute for making ministers answer systematically for the services over which they preside, and telling the public what they say.

I agree that the workings of Parliament can be improved. Prime Minister's Questions, for example, is in urgent need of reform. Yet that is a tiny part of the work of the Commons. Today, it is virtually all people are allowed to see and read about. So they develop no serious sense of how their system of parliamentary democracy operates, its light and shade, the important detail of the work.

No wonder there is cynicism about politics when newspapers comprehensively censor what their readers should know, when more space is given to gossip in lobbies than to debate in the chamber and ministerial answers in Hansard. How will young people learn?

A declared Tory wrote to me last week to lament the decline in the Telegraph's coverage. 'My late teens,' he wrote, 'gave me a wonderful insight and interest in Parliament from the parliamentary reports, plus the sketch . . . I am alarmed at what is happening.' So am I. Newspaper readers were never asked whether they wanted this change. It has certainly not sold papers, for circulations since 1988 are down, not up. It was done through a combination of hunch, and suffocating hauteur. Over time, it will undermine our democracy.

The author is Labour's spokesman on local government.

(Photograph and graph omitted)