In 1828, British historian Thomas Babbington Macaulay noticed something interesting up in the back row of the Strangers’ Gallery, where reporters sat in semi-darkness struggling to hear and record proceedings on the floor of the Commons.
How did they come to be there, those early interlopers who risked imprisonment or worse to report the proceedings of a Parliament that for the first half of its existence had sat in secret?
The Press Gallery owes its existence to Speaker Charles Abbot. It was Speaker Abbot who on 25th May, 1803, first recognised the need to protect the right of reporters to be in the gallery, and his successors have assiduously defended that right.
William Pitt’s announcement to Parliament in May, 1803, that Britain was to resume the war against France went unreported because MPs’ cronies had paid for seats for the momentous occasion and the Press failed to gain admittance.
Amid the resulting outcry, Abbot ordered that the seats at the back of the Strangers’ Gallery be permanently reserved for ‘news writers’. A purpose-built press gallery was included when Westminster Palace was rebuilt in 1852.
Two centuries is too long a story to tell here in full, but if Parliament had had its way at the outset, there would be none to tell at all.
Fast-forward to 2009, and Kenneth Marende is holding forte at the National Assembly in Nairobi. Mr Marende wants to change the way politics is reported here by coming up with a scheme to lock out reporters from accessing the Press Gallery.
Why he is worried over the presence of journalists in the House still baffles me.
Mr Speaker has not bothered to give an explanation why the Fourth Estate must be locked out of the chamber and what will become of the Press Gallery, and he only says that other countries (that he doesn’t name) were already adopting the system.
I’m opposed to this move as I don’t see any justification to lock out news writers from the Parliamentary debate chambers. The move is tantamount to locking Kenyans out of Parliament.
All that I can decipher here is a covert move to shield cheeky MPs from being exposed by a free media. Relations between politicians and journalists have always been uneasy since time immemorial, but the current move stinks to the high heavens.
Kenyan legislators have accused the media of concentrating on sideshows e.g. when TV cameras pan on some MPs taking a nap in the August House. This is a selfish motive, to protect the image of a person earning close to Sh1 million at the expense of a constituent dying of hunger and who still has to struggle to pay the MP. No focusing on empty seats? The infamous quorum hitches in the Chamber will be entrenched and there will be no one to raise the red flag.
Parliament is no place to hide and Mr Marende should be at the forefront advocating for increased public scrutiny of the House. Mr Marende should be made to understand that the Press being allowed into the front row of the public gallery is a right.
He should also be told that journalists should not monitor proceedings from seclusion outside the Chambers, because they need to a have a feel of what’s happening inside. The Press should be allowed to have their eyes roam freely and report freely – not through stage managed shots by Parliamentary staff – which will make it hard for reporters to determine precisely what happens in the House.
It’s the nature of news that we want our correspondents to report what they see. That is the essence of journalism.
Video footage coming out of Parliament since the live broadcasting of parliamentary proceedings was introduced late last year has also been below expectations. We have seen Parliamentary staff tamper with audio and video signals to edit out what they don’t want aired. Technology also fails sometimes. Is this what Mr Marende wants us exposed to?
Mr Marende should also take time and notice huge expenses being incurred by private organisations to adopt open office plans.
The Press Centre is a good idea, but should only be used to provide audio and video feeds.
Mr Marende should utilise taxpayer’s funds in undertaking projects that promote the ideals of a modern Parliament and not those that infringe on the “greatest safeguard of public liberty". And while at it, he should also ensure improved accommodation of journalists inside the chamber by expanding the Press gallery.
Mr Marende should not be allowed to push reporters into a backroom where they will be struggling to hear and record what is being said on the floor of the House far away from the chambers.
The spirit of the Press Gallery, an institution at the heart of Parliament, must remain unchanged.