MEDIA: PARLIAMENTARY COVERAGE - Putting politics back into perspective/After a long drought the activities taking place within Westminster are once again gaining copious column inches within the broadcast and print media

Over the last 20 years, the long term trend in politics has been clear - Parliament, the nerve centre of democracy, has been treated with increasing contempt by political parties and the media alike. Apart from the infrequent backbench rebellions, the workings of the ’Mother of All Parliaments’ have had no regular coverage in the press since the death of the daily reports in the broadsheets towards the middle of the 1980s.

Over the last 20 years, the long term trend in politics has been

clear - Parliament, the nerve centre of democracy, has been treated with

increasing contempt by political parties and the media alike. Apart from

the infrequent backbench rebellions, the workings of the ’Mother of All

Parliaments’ have had no regular coverage in the press since the death

of the daily reports in the broadsheets towards the middle of the

1980s.



In April 1998, the BBC all but removed Parliament from Radio 4’s FM

frequency and that seemed to be that. Over the last two years, however,

we have been witness to a curious media phenomenon - the strange

re-birth of the Parliamentary page.



In 1997, there were no Parliamentary pages. Now, the Times, the Daily

Telegraph and the Independent all carry a daily page while the Guardian

has a Parliament and politics page.



It’s not immediately obvious what has caused this resurgence. Is it a

desire to act as opposition to Blair’s hegemony? Is it a sense of

vibrancy about the youthful MPs sitting in the house? Is it just because

everyone else is doing it? Each paper has a different reason, although

Andrew Grice at the Independent is clear on one thing: ’We were first

and everyone else is copying us,’ he insists.



In the meantime, the BBC has increased its coverage of Parliament since

April 1998. After MPs spoke out about the corporation’s public service

remit, this session saw Today in Parliament returned to Radio 4’s FM

from its isolation on long wave and the Week in Parliament was moved

back to Saturday mornings from its Thursday night slot.



’In my opinion, no MP and no Parliament freak can now complain that they

don’t get enough coverage of Parliament from the media,’ says Brian

Walker, executive editor of the BBC’s Parliamentary programming.



But what does all this extra coverage mean for the spin doctors?



Charles Lewington, managing director of Media Strategy, who worked with

John Major in the last government, isn’t sure it will mean that

much.



’The last Government was pretty bloody at times and sometimes I would

have preferred a lot less reporting,’ he says.



’As it is, I think the pages will struggle to hold readers’

attention.



Most of the time, Parliament is pretty dull and even when speeches of

quality are being given, it is difficult to convey their power in a

half-page report or a ten-minute programme.’





THE TIMES



Position: Political Editor



Circulation: 735,162



’When I joined the Times in the 1970s it used to run a full page of

parliamentary coverage. In the late-1980s that changed. Television

started broadcasting Parliament. There were more big announcements of

policy outside Parliament than inside the House and the page just

withered away.



’This summer, however, we decided to re-introduce it when Parliament

returned. It has got a great response from the readers. I think that

Parliament is more interesting now. While Blair has an absolute majority

of 177, there’s a whole load of Labour MPs who didn’t expect to get in,

who are using this Parliament to make their mark in the expectation that

they will lose at the next election. As a result the debates these days

are always packed.’





THE INDEPENDENT



Position: Political Editor



Circulation: 230,677



’Our Parliamentary page isn’t just a Hansard-style report of

debates.



We cover the actions of the select committees as well. At a time when

the Government has such a huge majority and the opposition are so low in

the opinion polls it is the select committees that the Government sees

as a thorn in its side.



’On Friday, for instance, we led the page with a story about a select

committee attacking the Government’s position on freedom of

information.



It was a key story and I don’t know why we were the only page to pick up

on it. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the Lords now that

the hereditary peers have gone. I think it will still cause the

Government a problem, especially with the fox hunting bill coming

up.





DAILY TELEGRAPH



Position: Political Editor



Circulation: 1,034,923



’We introduced a Parliament page on 19 October and, to a large extent it

is an attempt to get round the spin doctoring that dominates politics

and which this Government, in particular, uses all the time.



’These days if there is an announcement on education to be made it

follows a very clear pattern through the Sundays, a few dailies, Today,

and news programmes. By the time the announcement reaches Parliament,

it’s an old story so it’s something of a fait accompli.



’We are hoping to give space to the forum where the spin doctors can’t

reach. We encourage backbench MPs to speak and we focus on them quite a

lot. We want to encourage them to speak out, to help portray Parliament

as important.’





THE GUARDIAN



Position: Political Editor



Circulation: 403,692



’I think Parliamentary reporting is at a complicated stage. There are

those who argue that, with the internet and cable television, people can

get all the news from Parliament that they need without turning to the

newspapers. I don’t think that’s true. At the same time, however,

Parliament is no longer the forum for the nation and we can’t escape

that fact.



’We report select committees with our team of specialist reporters and

we have an investigative parliamentary reporter in David Hencke, but

there are some stories that we don’t have the space to run.



’We do get MPs coming up to us and saying ’why weren’t you in the

chamber?’ and we say ’we’ll be in the chamber when you are’.’



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