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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 May, 2003, 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK
200 years of hacks in the House
Prime Minister Tony Blair with wife Cherie
Celebrating the Parliamentary Press: The Prime Minister and wife Cherie arrive at the gala dinner

One of the lynchpins of British democracy, the Parliamentary Press Gallery, has celebrated its 200th anniversary.

On the 25th May 1803 the Speaker formally gave the press the right to observe proceedings in the House of Commons.

Days earlier journalists had been unable to report on a key debate about war with France because they could not get into a packed public gallery.

Amid the resulting outcry the Speaker, Charles Abbot, ordered that the seats at the back of the Strangers' Gallery be permanently reserved for 'newswriters'.

British historian Lord Macaulay tagged the resulting Parliamentary Press Gallery the "Fourth Estate of the realm", with the Church, the nobility and the Commons being the other three.

He went on to describe the institution as "the greatest safeguard of public liberty".

Press party

The eyes and ears of the nation in 21st Century Westminster celebrated 200 years of their trade with a gala dinner in London on Wednesday evening.

Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie were guests of honour.

Newspaper and broadcast journalists were also joined by the Speaker, Michael Martin, who is honorary president of the gallery.

In his speech Mr Martin announced the establishment of the Speaker Abbot Award.

From next year this will be given to the journalist who has made the greatest contribution to the protection and promotion of parliamentary democracy.

The struggle

But relations between politicians and journalists have always been uneasy.

Initially politicians regarded any reporting of their proceedings as unacceptable.

In 1694 a newsletter writer called Dyer was summoned to the bar of the Commons for a telling off from Mr Speaker for reporting the proceedings of the house.

A motion was passed in 1738 declaring the House would deal "with utmost severity" with anyone who gave an account of its debates.

Dog and lamppost

More recently former political editor of the Press Association Chris Moncrief - who spoke at Wednesday's dinner - said the relationship between politicans and journalists has always been hostile.

And he maintains that is how it should be.

The American journalist H L Mencken memorably said the relationship should be like that between a dog and a lamppost.

And Conservative peer Lord Norton likens the partnership to a marriage, a symbiotic if not always harmonious relationship: "There is little chance of divorce but there are occasional tensions."

Abbot's foothold

Speaker Abbot laid the foundations for the modern bridge between reporters and their political prey.

Charles Dickens began his writing career as parliamentary reporter for his uncle's paper, The Mirror of Parliament, in 1831.

And a purpose-built press gallery was included when Westminster Palace was rebuilt in 1852.

The growing corps of reporters began to establish itself as an institution.

Around 170 journalists a day now enjoy substantial access to Parliament's chambers and corridors of power.

TV interviews are permitted in Central Lobby, along the committee corridor and in numerous other areas, by arrangement.

But although journalists' conditions and working practises are a world apart from those of 1803, they are still subject to the arcane aspects of Westminster life.

Woe betide the cub reporter who ignores the Parliamentary officers who control access and uphold the rules over how locations can be used.

200 years of the Press Gallery
The BBC's Norman Smith reports: "Two hundred years on, and nothing much has changed."

Commons Confidential
22 May 03  |  Politics


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