Democracy, Transparency, and Parliamentary Broadcasting

22 August 2013

Patrick Gregory

‘Justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done’. In its shortened form this old aphorism of done/seen-to-be-done, seemingly as old as the hills, was in fact given its wider, modern form by Gordon Hewart in the 1920s. Hewart, the 1st  Viscount Hewart, was then Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, and was hearing an appeal at the King’s Bench Division in a case where there was a perceived conflict of interest of those trying a case in a lower court. Had there been a conflict? No matter. There couldn’t and shouldn’t be the notion abroad that one could have arisen.

This assertion of the principle of natural justice, so important in many jurisdictions the world over is so, of course, not simply because of its own inherent merit but because of the transparency it champions. Undoubtedly it was advanced by Hewart to ensure the reputation of the courts system as much as to safeguard the rights of the appellant in what was a comparatively minor case—one of alleged dangerous driving.

But it might equally be held and thought to derive from Hewart’s own previous career as a politician; before he was Lord Chief Justice he had served as Attorney-General in Lloyd George’s coalition government post-First World War. As such, he first had to be elected to parliament. Hewart was not the first, and certainly will not  be the last, person to balance both political and legal careers. But the act of submitting oneself to the scrutiny of the electorate certainly makes a person aware of the wishes and opinions of the public. In a democratic system the voters are the masters, choosing who will govern over them, and with the favour they bestow also comes the scrutiny;  they can remove as well as choose their representatives, and they might opt for the former if they think their wishes have not been fulfilled.

Transparency and the media

In order to do that the voters first need the knowledge of what their politicians have done in their name. Ability to monitor political—in particular legislative—activity is a necessary prerequisite, which is where the media have a role to play. The early parliamentary scribblers of Hewart’s time have their latter-day counterparts in journalists across the globe trying their level best to report what politicians are doing in an electronic age. Today they are aided in many cases (over 60 countries in full or in part) by the presence of television cameras and radio microphones.

But that is not to say that their job is an easy one. Yes, parliamentary broadcasting from inside chambers has allowed journalist to hold up a mirror to parliaments, giving greater first-hand experience of the politicians. Especially when that broadcasting is live and in abundance it also allows for a much more unmediated form of scrutiny. But not all countries, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa, have the resources for large-scale live broadcasting. There is more reliance on packaged material and here the journalists’ job is still a difficult one—at times hazardous.

As Mary Raine, a former BBC World Service news editor, said in a report some years ago analysing parliamentary broadcasting in the Commonwealth: ‘It is crucial…that [a] station and its journalists … have credibility and that the viewer does not feel that improper pressures are being exercised and the news slanted. This is still a problem in some countries, even though democracy is increasing throughout the Commonwealth … It is helpful to have Guidelines to aid journalists in their reporting of Parliament, emphasizing the need for fairness, balance and impartiality and to present a wide range of opinions’. And herein lies what for me is one of the missed opportunities in the field of democracy-strengthening initiatives, the ability to target the two estates of politics and broadcasting in a joined-up manner.

Democracy-strengthening initiatives

In an increasingly interconnected world the future practices of these two areas are wedded together and they need one another. Whilst the two have differing focuses they have the same public aim—information—and they have, for too long, been looked at in isolation to one another. But where they can come together for the common good is in free and unfettered public service broadcasting of parliaments. It is in the training of journalists in this area—and the co-operation of the politicians in not seeking to influence such activity—that progress can be made. In the bargain the politicians get seen and heard. To date a lot of the democracy-strengthening initiatives undertaken by outside agencies in the developing world have focused on training and peer-to-peer work with politicians and officials. Simultaneously government agencies, broadcasters and training bodies have done vital work with journalists in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and elsewhere in supporting the journalists with skills and values training.

But the time is now right to look beyond that, to combining these two elements in the one arena they can most profitably coexist—the field of parliamentary broadcasting, to further the training of journalists in this area whilst ensuring that the politicians are aware that they cannot stand in the way. Including parliamentary broadcast training as the third leg of the stool will allow developing democracies to increase the level and quality of information available about the political process. By pointing the television camera and the radio microphone at legislative proceedings (and with the necessary ‘credibility’ which Mary Raine refers to) those very legislatures are themselves strengthened. The amount of primary information open to the public on legislative activity, especially important in the run-up to elections, is increased; it strengthens the principles of civil society by showing politics as a process of peaceful dialogue and not just as the exercise of government; and through it a vital and direct rapport can be established between parliamentarian and viewer-as-voter.

Will the politicians somehow grow to love those who report on them and vice versa overnight? Doubtful. But in our increasingly inter-connected world where broadcasting and social media can act as a glue of information, a beneficial interdependence of politicians and journalists can be fostered which can help us all.

Patrick Gregory is Deputy News Editor and Managing Editor of Political Programmes at BBC Westminster

WIDERAngle newsletter
August 2013
ISSN 1238-9544