Parliament: Communication with the Public — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 18th December 2008.

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Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour 4:15 pm, 18th December 2008

My Lords, along with others who have spoken in the debate, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton. I agree with a great deal of what he had to say, as I do with much of what other noble Lords have said. I, too, want to place on the record my thanks to the Hansard Society and the Information Office of this House, not only for their work on the Lords of the Blog, but for their work in general. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that we have seen significant improvements in recent years.

I want to say a brief word about the media and politics. I have great respect for my noble friend Lord Puttnam and for the work of his commission, but I feel that we have never quite got to grips with the interface between the media and politics. For that matter, it is not just us who have not done so, it is the media as well; we are both partly to blame. I certainly do not want to go back to the old situation where the Times would report line by line what was said—it does not and would not work, and the media have changed so much that it is meaningless to talk in those terms—but there is a problem that needs to be addressed by editors and politicians. I can give only one or two examples because of time constraints.

A few months ago, there was a massive demonstration where thousands of people came to Parliament to lobby about the European Union Bill, which they felt would affect Britain constitutionally. I disagree with their point, but they made it very powerfully and there were thousands of them. That story was virtually pushed out of the media by three young people who climbed on to the roof of Parliament to make a protest. I have to say that if editors choose a news story about three fit young people who are devious enough to get on to the roof of Parliament and brush aside the efforts of thousands of people engaged in a lobby, something is going wrong with the reportage. Not only does that make people feel that lobbying Parliament has no impact on the media, but it also encourages demonstrations of the type that I have described.

When I started a blog as an MP in 2003, I was struck by a long series of exchanges in response to my entry about Fathers for Justice. The debate went on for a long time and involved many people. One of them said to me later that the fact that he had felt able to communicate directly meant that he did not have to climb up on to a crane. Noble Lords will recall that, at one point, men from Fathers for Justice were climbing cranes and doing all kinds of other things. If the media will report only the dramatic, what makes an attractive picture, and ignore how the democratic process works for thousands of people, something has to be addressed. That is important.

I turn to the weblog, or blog, as it has become known. One of the reasons why I think that this form of communication is important—people may think that I would say that because I had a hand in formulating it and was one of the first in the House of Commons to write a blog—is that the figures in the report, which is now available from the Information Office, show that around 55 per cent of the people visiting the site are between the ages of 18 and 34. Some of the best programmes that the BBC and broadcasters are delivering on podcasts and so on—"Today in Parliament" is a good example, but there are others—are attracting an audience drawn from the other end of the age range. The real point here is that the nature of politics is changing. People are not less interested in politics but more issue-interested.

One of the good things about weblogs is that people can go in and look at what a person is saying about particular issues. That is important, particularly for young people. We ought to be doing more to develop this, whether through Facebook or whatever. Indeed, one of the best examples in Parliament is Derek Wyatt MP. He has an incredibly interactive site, where he talks directly with people. That is the way things are going. The 18 to 34 age group that is using the Lords of the Blog will be the older group, who may well still listen to "Today in Parliament" and the other programmes but will also be looking for ways to interact. That is profoundly important. Although I was pleased with the site's take-off performance—we reached 113,000 visits, which is no small number—the usage of Lords of the Blog is relatively low at the moment and there is further to go.

I confess that I have not made enough entries recently. I aimed originally to do at least one a week but I have not achieved that. All credit to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, who manages far more than I do. He has taken to it like a duck to water, but we have to make sure that he is not left as the main blogger. Other people need to come in. We have 10 or 12 noble Lords who blog occasionally.

The noble Lord, Lord Renton, and the Lord Speaker did guest blogs, which were very useful. I suggest that we write to all Members of the House saying, "This exists. This is what it does. Remember that you are talking particularly to younger people but also people who are interested in the House of Lords. It is not difficult to do. Please phone this number in order to have your hand held, if you like, while you get on line. It does not take much time when you are doing it". The thing that puts people off is the fear of being pulled into arguments and discussions that go on for ever, but it is not like that; you can have perfectly reasonable discussions in a limited time. I have also written to the education department of the House, which has agreed to make sure that this is drawn to the attention of schools and colleges, because they will build on it.

On the language that is used in this place and elsewhere in Parliament, I am not against the grand occasions here—although, like others, I think that it is a mistake that the media produce only one photograph of the House of Lords—but more important is the day-to-day language that we use. Whenever I speak, I try to use language that is understood on the street. I did so when I was in the House Commons and I do so here. The language in here is not always the language that is understood on the street. A little while ago I asked some youngsters what they thought a right reverend Prelate was. Not too many knew, but they all knew what a bishop was.

A point has been made about the use of the word "gallant". As an ex-national serviceman who was not that gallant in his service I cannot claim to be gallant, but I am not sure why we make the distinction. I have always felt that the use of the word "learned" in the phrase "noble and learned Lord" was a shrewd marketing move by barristers to get their trade recognised and given the status that it deserves.

The other typical phrase that troubles me is "the other place". If you say that you had a conversation with someone in the other place, quite frankly it sounds as though you had a chat with someone in the loo. It is not like that, but that is how it sounds on the street. So can we get rid of some of it? If we talk in ordinary language in here, people will understand it and will relate to it better. However, I am delighted with the work that is being done. We need to do more and I urge every Member of the House of Lords to at least give the Lords of the Blog a try. Have a shot at it. It does not take very long.