Hot takes and fake news: news management through the Votes of the House of Commons

In the era of live webcasts from the Chamber and committee rooms, rolling Hansard and near-instant transcripts of committee sessions, it is sometimes difficult to conceive of an era when the House of Commons fought jealously to keep reports of its proceedings out of the public domain. As the House marks 200 years since the first publication of the Votes and Proceedings, Martyn Atkins, Clerk of the Procedure Committee, explains how the Commons began to manage the reporting of its decisions…

The heightened tension and moral panic which gripped life at Westminster in the time of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis made participation in political life dangerous — especially for opponents of the Court party and those who wished to see James, Duke of York excluded from the succession on account of his supposed Catholicism. As an institution which had typically prohibited any reporting out of doors of its debates and decisions, unless sanctioned by order of the House, the House of Commons found itself highly susceptible to the conduits of ‘fake news’: the broadside, the unauthorised publication and the gossip in the coffee shops.

So it was in October 1680 that the House ordered the printing and sale, under the Speaker’s authority, of a daily report of its proceedings — the Vote. Though some Members advocating the first regular publication of an account of business in the House, sought to dress it up in high principle — the right of the electorate to know how their representatives were conducting themselves — most who were in favour of the scheme were more self-serving. Publication would counter the inaccurate and often dangerous gossip about business in the House which was being put about.

After a hiatus in the reign of James II, the House in the Convention Parliament of 1689 ordered, against rather stouter opposition, to revive the Vote. Printed privately under licence from the Speaker, it continued to be a commercial success until the 1780s, when the House’s opposition to reports of debates was finally relaxed and public demand for the reporting of decisions fell away. At that point the Vote was sustained through payments from the Exchequer.

In truth, by then the Vote had become a bloated enterprise, stuffed with dull verbatim recitations of petitions and preambles to private bills. Its subsidy guaranteed its continued production, but its value as a news source was diminishing, not least because the increase of business in the House led to significant delays in its production. It was not unusual for a Vote to appear over five days after the sitting day it recorded. Even in the eighteenth century this represented an unacceptable delay.

Speaker Charles Abbot, Drawing by S.J. Buck, (c) Palace of Westminster, WOA 2393

The innate conservatism of the Commons appeared to militate against any change in practice, and it took fifteen years for the reforming Speaker, Charles Abbot, to make an impact on this area of the House’s information management. Abbot was indebted to his erstwhile secretary, John Rickman, the driving force behind the Census Act of 1801, for a scheme which would revolutionise the publication of the House’s decisions.

By March 1817 it was privately clear to Abbot, chosen Speaker in 1802, that his time in the Chair was coming to a close, hastened by health issues of which erysipelas — a debilitating condition causing skin rashes — was but one (Erysipelas, or ‘St Anthony’s fire’, can develop from gout. It was not fatal to Abbot, but did carry off Queen Anne, Charles Lamb, John Stuart Mill and Queen Victoria’s John Brown). His diaries record that he had begun to haggle with the Exchequer over his likely pension. In a career where he had driven through change in the management of the House’s accounts and papers, creating the foundation for the House of Commons Library, it is apparent that he wished to achieve one further reform. For this he relied upon Rickman, who had by now left his personal service to join the House service as Second Clerk Assistant.

The degree of pitch-rolling preceding the Speaker’s announcement in the House on Wednesday 26 March 1817 must have been considerable:

Since the accession of his present majesty, until the period of the Union, the business of that House had increased threefold. From the Union to the present time that increase was fivefold. From this consideration he had directed his attention to ascertain whether or not the publication of the votes and of the journals might not be effected in some more compressed form, so as to have their delivery take place at a much earlier period than was possible under the present system, and at a reduced expense in the charge of printing… He was now satisfied that the printed votes under the new arrangement, could be delivered the morning after the decision, and that they might also contain the orders of the day, the notices, and the second readings of private bills. The consequence of the arrangement in the votes would give such an accession of assistance in the preparation of the printed journals [HC Deb 27 March 1817 vol 35 col 1273-74]

The Speaker suggested the proposal be considered by a select committee and be trialed for the remained of the session. To cries of ‘hear hear!’ the House agreed.

Charles Bathurst, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, made the Committee’s report to the House  the very next day and read the Committee’s resolution endorsing the method for preparing the V&P set out in the report:

Mr. Bathurst reported … that the committee having examined Mr. Ley and Mr. Rickman, the clerks assistant of the House, Mr. Whittam the clerk of the journals, and Mr. Bowyer Nichols, the printer of the votes, and compared the intended compressed form of the votes, with that at present in use, had come to the following resolution: “That it will be advisable that the votes and proceedings of the House should be prepared, printed, and distributed according to the method proposed and described in the papers thereunto annexed.”  [HC Deb 27 March 1817 vol 35 col 1275]

The resolution of the Committee was read and agreed to on Friday 28 March: the House thereby endorsed a new method for preparing and printing the record of its proceedings.

The squaring of the Exchequer and the forces of conservatism in the House was undoubtedly done by Rickman, who calculated that under the new arrangements the Vote could be published overnight, with radically reduced pagination, thus saving the Exchequer some £2000 annually.  A further innovation was proposed: the Votes and Proceedings should, for the better information of Members, have appended a list of the Orders of the Day, Notices of Motion and Private Bills set down for the next sitting day.

The last edition of the old Votes appeared on Monday 31 March 1817. The House then adjourned until Monday 14 April 1817. (Easter Sunday fell on 6 April.)

The House did not in fact produce the Votes and Proceedings on 14 April 1817. The House met to hear the Deputy Clerk (Jeremiah Dyson the younger) read a letter from Speaker Abbot, laid up in his house at Kidbrooke in Sussex pleading indisposition (from erysipelas, his diary records) and requesting that the House consider adjourning for a further week.

Dyson did not chair proceedings, but the Journal records that “according to the former practice in the absence of the Speaker” Members addressed themselves to him, and, at the House’s direction, he put the question that the House adjourn until 24 April.

On 24 April the Speaker resumed the Chair, with grateful thanks to the House for its indulgence, and a V&P for 14 and 24 April was printed, together with the expected Orders and Notices of Motion and Private Bills for Friday 25 April.

Under the old format, 44 sitting days were covered in 390 pages.  Under the new format, 58 sitting days were covered in 229 pages: selected petition texts were printed as a sessional appendix running to an additional 77 pages.

On 30 May Dyson’s reading aloud abilities were tested again, this time on a letter from Abbot announcing his retirement through ill-health.  At this point the Mace was brought in and placed beneath the table.  Dyson then, following the practice of the House when there was no Speaker in office, stood up and wordlessly pointed to Lord Castlereagh, Leader of the House, to give him the floor. Castlereagh made a short speech and moved the adjournment. The House subsequently chose Charles Manners-Sutton as its new Speaker, and Abbot was raised to the peerage as Baron Colchester.  As R G Thorne’s biography of Abbot records, he continued to grumble about the size of his pension.

Erskine May, writing in 1854, said he could not recall any change of any importance in Parliamentary practice before the Reform Act “with the exception of the daily distribution of the printed Votes and Proceedings, for which we are mainly indebted to the zeal of the late Mr Rickman.” The Votes and Proceedings continue to be produced to this day under a method which Rickman would doubtless recognise, but making the fullest use of modern information technology, a development he would surely have applauded.

MA

You can see the latest version of Votes and Proceedings here.

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