The Register of Members’ Media Meetings
During the debate on Phone Hacking, which followed Prime Minister’s Questions, he said:
As we discussed a few moments ago, if we are calling for greater transparency from the police, I think it is only right that we provide it in Government, too. After all, as I have said, one of the reasons why we got into this situation is because, over the decades, politicians and the press have spent time courting support, not confronting the problems. So I will be consulting the Cabinet Secretary on an amendment to the ministerial code to require Ministers to record all meetings with newspaper and other media proprietors, senior editors and executives, regardless of the nature of the meeting. Permanent secretaries and special advisers will also be required to record such meetings. This information should be published quarterly. It is a first for our country, and alongside the other steps we are taking, will help to make the UK Government one of the most transparent in the world. I will also be discussing this with the Opposition, and perhaps we can adopt it on a cross-party basis.The relevant exchange during PMQs:
Q10.  Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Can the Prime Minister assure the House that all illegal press activity under the last Government will be investigated now, and that that will include the criminal conspiracy between the highest levels in that last Government and parts of the Murdoch empire, including the blagging of bank accounts of Lord Ashcroft in a bid to undermine him and his position as laid out in “Dirty politics, Dirty times”?But it is to be noted that there is a slight inconsistency between these two statements: one refers to an imminent obligation upon ministers, permanent secretaries and special advisers; the other refers to politicians in general. Indeed, the Prime Minister later said:
The Prime Minister: The point about the inquiry that we are shortly going to discuss is that it will look at the relationship between politicians and media groups, across the whole issue of that relationship including as it relates to media policy. I think that is extremely important. The inquiry will have the ability to call politicians—serving politicians and previous Prime Ministers—to get to the bottom of what happened and how unhealthy the relationship was. That is what needs to happen.
Lord Justice Leveson, assisted by a panel of senior independent figures with relevant expertise in media, broadcasting, regulation and government will inquire into the culture, practices and ethics of the press; its relationship with the police; the failure of the current system of regulation; the contacts made, and discussions had, between national newspapers and politicians...If one is to make the UK Government ‘one of the most transparent in the world’, such meetings should not only be declared, but the matters discussed made public. And if this emerging Register of Members’ Media Meetings is to be of any use at all, it must also apply to the Opposition.
Yet, if it were to do so, it would no longer simply form part of the ministerial code, since the Opposition frontbench are not ministers. And if the new regulation is also to apply to permanent secretaries and special advisers, we really are talking about a register which would be more far-reaching than that devised to record members’ interests. Indeed, knowing how capricious the world of politics is, and knowing how quickly MPs may lose or win, rise or fall, be in and then out, the proposed register must apply to all MPs. For why should an obscure and unknown member have a meeting with a prominent editor last week, during which certain assurances were made and terms agreed, only to find himself or herself a minister the following week, still bound by those assurances and terms previously agreed?
And, further, why should this apply only to ‘proprietors, editors and senior media executives’, when the corruption at hand appears to have been effected by reporters and journalists?
Further still, how is one actually to define ‘proprietors, editors and senior media executives’? It is noteworthy that the Prime Minister has already released details of all his meetings over the past year, and these naturally include prominent newspaper and magazine editors and proprietors. But the list also includes Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome. Now this gets interesting. Is Tim Montogomerie a media chief executive? That must make Lord Ashcroft a proprietor. Is Guido Fawkes both proprietor and chief executive? Is His Grace?
If MPs are about to be obliged to declare all conversations and contact with the Blogosphere, there can be no more of Guido's parliamentary co-conspirators, no more helpful tip-offs by unnamed sources, and no more anonymous briefings by those who are 'close' to so-and-so.
And yet this register cannot exempt the blogs, not least because some are vastly more influential and far more widely read than some national newspapers and magazines. But why specify ‘national newspapers’ when things can get awfully cosy between an MP and his local press? And are not many of those local newspapers (240 to be precise) owned by the Mirror Group? And which newspaper group is actually top of the league table when it comes to illicit activity?
If one is to initiate root and branch reform of the relationship between politicians and the press, it must include all politicians, from the lowliest MP to the Prime Minister, and all employees of the media, from the lowliest reporter to the most powerful proprietor. If we focus only on the ministers, editors and media baron organ grinders, it won’t be too long before the monkeys move in to and collaborate and collude vicariously.
Another interesting stipulation is the compulsion upon politicians to declare contact ‘regardless of the nature of the meeting’. Does the meeting have to be face to face? In an age of video-conferencing and Skype, surely not. Does email correspondence constitute a meeting? Does a telephone conversation? Twitter? Gossip? If so, we can expect an awful lot of time and effort devoted to this sort of thing.
His Grace wasn’t sure how any of this would or could work in practice, so he consulted the friendly Labour MP Tom Harris. Back came the defiant response that he would continue to meet whomsoever he wish whenever he wished (especially if they were paying).
And so hundreds of hours of parliamentary time are consumed; thousands of tons of hot air are released; and millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is dedicated to the formation of a Register of Members’ Media Meetings, to run alongside of the Register of Members’ Interests, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.
And absolutely nothing changes.