The Director General of the BBC gathered together a select band of MPs and Peers this week to discuss the breakdown of public trust in both broadcasters and politicians. Looking round the table, it was difficult to work out why we had been invited. Gerald Kaufman was an obvious choice to bemoan the claimed collapse in standards in the media since he was a journalist. A number of others harked back to various “Golden Ages” of political reporting and commentary. Frankly, I don’t believe they ever happened. Even when there were whole pages of Parliamentary Reports in some papers, only a tiny elite read them, in the cosy comfort of their London Clubs. Today, far more have access to political issues through the internet, BBC Parliament or even our very own Lords and Commons website. And much of the information provided is now available unfiltered through the viewpoint of opinionated commentators.
Whether that leads to greater trust of either profession is doubtful. George Young, Chairman of the MPs’ Standards Committee, thought that we Parliamentarians could learn from the way in which the BBC tackled its problem. Reputation – whether of ‘Blue Peter’ in the kitten-naming scandal or elsewhere – could be fragile. Ignoring public disquiet, and hoping it would go away, was no solution. Having accepted the need for action, a rapid plan which embraced all concerned and then urgent implementation were essential. It sounded as if he didn’t think the Commons authorities were moving fast or firmly enough on the expenses crisis, following the Conway and other scandals. And is anyone looking seriously at the Lords?
Meanwhile, Peers themselves did a proper job on the Northern Rock legislation – providing rather more effective scrutiny than in the more partisan Commons. I was giving evidence to the MPs’ Justice Select Committee, and then contributing to a Grand Committee debate on the new unitary Cornwall Council. Both occasions gave me a chance to argue for more power to be decentralised away from Westminster and Whitehall … but I would never argue that this should mean the abolition of the second chamber. That would reduce rather than increase public trust in Parliament!