Sunday, 23 October 2011

A new generation of parliamentary privilege

An article (see by someone I recall as a local paper editor some years back caused me to raise an ironic eyebrow, and gave me a giggle or two. Nothing similar has appeared on radio or in the local print press yet, which doesn’t surprise me for the same reasons that it caused me so much amusement.
The thing is, I pottered about in Manx journalism 20 or so years ago when Hazel Hannan, then MHK for Peel, one day used parliamentary privilege to ask impertinent questions of the Minister for Tourism about Charles Kerruish. More specifically, she was trying to clarify what funding Kerruish might have received from the Tourist Board (as it then was) towards the costs of some holiday cottages he was having built, and with what guarantees.
Doubt later emerged as to whether they really were holiday cottages, and if any part of the possible grant conditions required him to pay back some or all of the grant if he, say, sold them on as private housing after a year or two because tourists didn’t rush to rent them – because tourists weren’t tending to rent a lot of holiday accommodation (or even to visit the island) at the time.
If this sounds familiar that might be because, some years later, similar questions about holiday accommodation were the undoing of a Chief Minister who Kerruish regarded as a protégé. They also went unreported until a court case some time after the questions were being asked, by which time most of the Manx public had obtained answers elsewhere.
Sadly, it seems only two journalists were in the Keys when Mrs Hannan made her enquiries. One was the hardworking Charles Guard from Manx Radio, the other was the equally conscientious and quite elderly Jennifer Leece, then working for the tiny Peel City Guardian, as was I.
Actually, this wasn’t unusual at a time before Johnston Press bought out the island’s two ‘rival’ larger newspaper groups. In fact it was something of a joke between Jennifer and Charles that the other papers only attended Tynwald if one of the MHKs who spoon-fed them was about to make a speech. Much of the time, so printworkers from that era who had to handle last minute page changes say, they just listened in to Charles’s reports and made notes, or used tip-offs from any MHK who was using them as unpaid PR, or just asked Fred Kissack (then Chief Secretary).
Charles, as I remember, did not include Hazel Hannan’s queries in his report that day. Perhaps, like Jennifer, he saw nothing startling in them. It was the usual practice, then as now, that any backbencher querying the actions of the political senility had been primed to do so by the subject in order that such wasters could make a carefully scripted reply to reassure the unwashed masses.
Jennifer, however, did report them, and they appeared in that week’s paper, as from my memory the editor also saw nothing remarkable and expected the Greatest Living Manxman (as he was then regarded) to make a routine explanation in due time.
Only he didn’t. Indeed, there were then claims the paper had misreported the questioning and the GLM even brought considerable influence to bear on both Mrs Hannan and the island’s smallest newspaper to retract all mention of such matters.
At which point the editor dug in his heels, backed the ever accurate Jennifer and said he would wait for the Hansard report to prove she had recorded it word perfect. Which she had. And then, as the editor also ran Manx Life, he continued to ask questions. Meanwhile, the island’s ‘national press’ remained silent, having simply not been there to hear the questions, even if they would be prepared to break the habit of a lifetime and for once demonstrate the gumption or tenacity to follow up.
Which they did not, as they also had not when senior civil servants (or even local police on at least one memorable occasion) ‘advised’ local newspapers not to follow up other stories in those years. The point being, unlike our shoestring operation, those papers received considerable income from government advertising and were expected, in return, to run numerous flattering stories helpfully and exclusively supplied to them.
There was, so I was told, an ‘understanding’ between senior civil servants and the two larger papers that government would prefer it if it was able to place public notices in two publications (as then and now required by various laws) but only pay once. Therefore it would sit back and wait while the papers got into a war for other advertising (which would handily also wipe out smaller, more troublesome publications) and reward the winner when the rival folded.
As it happened, Johnston Press was playing the same game on a larger scale around Britain, intent on monopolising the regional market which was then the only press growth area. When the two Manx rivals had near bankrupted themselves it stepped in, bought them both and captured the entire government contract. JP also found a huge potential one in return for bigging up drunken lunchtime pronouncements from finance sector figureheads who, in the name of all decency, should really be left to ramble incoherently into a hotel urinal until they pass out.
So, in these new and desperate times are we about to see elected politicians and the local press being told by senior government figures who lack even a public mandate what to ask, what to report, and about whom?
Or is just business as usual? In which case I predict the press won’t even need to be ‘advised’, as Manx journalists once were in quite a heavy-handed manner. They already know, and will.
As for the politicians in a parliament where procedure and access to power is controlled by characters who are not used to being questioned (or even having to suffer the indignity of seeking election)……
What do you think?

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