The ‘Story of Parliament’: Parliament and the press

Earlier this year the History published ‘The Story of Parliament: Celebrating 750 years of parliament in Britain’ to mark the anniversary of Simon de Montfort’s parliament in 1265. The book is a brief introduction to the full 750 years of parliamentary history, aimed at the general reader, and available to purchase from the Houses of Parliament bookshop – a great Christmas present for the parliamentary history enthusiast in your life!

On this blog we are publishing some tasters of ‘The Story of Parliament’ from a number of the academics who contributed to the book. Our third post looks at Parliament’s relationship with the press through the years, as the public slowly began to demand to know what MPs said and did.

This article was originally written by Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in the House of Lords 1660-1832 section and Dr Kathryn Rix, of the Victorian Commons.

For much of its history members of parliament officially thought that their proceedings should remain private. It would be easier, they believed, to debate deeply controversial matters, such as how much tax to give the king, without people knowing what they were up to, and constantly putting pressure on them to do something different.

In practice, many of them thought it might be quite helpful to their standing with their friends and electors to publicise their speeches and activities. Some, by the end of the 17th century, even felt that the public had a right to know what they were doing. In 1680 the House of Commons decided – in the midst of its confrontation with Charles II over the Popish Plot and the debates over the succession of Charles’s Catholic brother James – to print the daily record of its decisions, the Votes and Proceedings. But the House still disliked any accounts of its actual debates to appear in public, regularly punishing the publishers of newspapers who dared to print anything of the kind. One magazine resorted to disguising its reports of the debates of the Senate of Lilliput, Jonathan Swift’s fictional country of small people, with Sir Robert Walpole not very well disguised as Flimnap.

The confrontation of the House of Commons with John Wilkes encouraged some of the publishers to challenge parliament directly. They became increasingly bold at printing their reports. In 1771, the Commons tried to summon them to the House for punishment. They evaded arrest, and with the help of Wilkes by virtue of his position as a London alderman, they turned the affair into a battle with the powerful corporation of London, provoking demonstrations in the streets outside Westminster, and a realisation amongst MPs that the ban on reporting was no longer workable. Soon after, the Lords too conceded the point and stopped attempting to prosecute those publishing their debates.

By the 19th century, the records of parliamentary debates became published. The official reports in Britain (and also in some commonwealth countries) are customarily referred to as Hansard, taking their name from the printer and publisher Thomas Curson Hansard (1766-1833). In 1812, Hansard took over the publication of parliamentary debates from the radical journalist William Cobbett, who had been producing them since 1803. Like Cobbett, Hansard compiled his accounts of parliamentary proceedings from newspaper reports, particularly The Times. Although Hansard eventually dominated, it was not the only such publication in the early 19th century. Its most notable rival, the Mirror of Parliament, which ran from 1828 until 1841, included a youthful Charles Dickens among its reporters.

Although it was still technically a breach of parliamentary privilege (until 1971) to publish reports of debates, the 19th century saw a growing acceptance of the importance of parliament’s deliberations being disseminated to the public. In 1803, the Commons Speaker arranged for the reporters to have special access to the gallery, and a separate reporters’ gallery was provided both in the temporary House of Commons erected after the 1834 fire at Westminster, and in the new House designed by Sir Charles Barry.

From 1877, Thomas Curson Hansard junior (1813-91), who had succeeded his father, received an annual subsidy for the publication, on condition that he included reports of debates on private bills and in committee, as well as debates after midnight, which the newspapers tended to neglect. He therefore had to employ his own reporters for this purpose. Following problems with a series of private printers from 1889, parliament took over the publication of debates in 1909, with its own reporting staff. It temporarily dropped the name Hansard, but this remained in common usage, and was reinstated in 1943.


‘The Story of Parliament’ is available at the Parliamentary bookshop for £14.99. You can purchase it here.

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