Thursday, 21 July 2011

Foaming at the mouth

It might have done Parliament a favour had PC Plod looked a little more responsive following Wednesday's foam-pie attack on Rupert Murdoch. The world's media was trained on the octogenerarian media mogul and his sidekick as they gave evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee yesterday afternoon. The whole incident was somewhat overshadowed by the actions of one Jonathan May-Bowles - a.k.a. 'Jonne Marbles', the foam-pie protestor who is due at Westminster Magistrates Court next Friday for attacking the senior Murdoch while he was being questioned. The sitting was suspended, the room was cleared and journalists and members of the public were forced to sit in another room when it reconvened. Murdoch simply wiped his specs, removed his jacket and carried on.

In a way, it's the least he could do given that this was the first time he has ever held to account by a Parliamentary committee in this way. As a friend of mine said, "Keep the custard pie in perspective. Murdoch called for war in Iraq for cheap oil". Twitter marvelled at Wendi Deng's razor-sharp defence of her husband, but some MPs are beginning to worry that as a result of the incident, the public's access to debates in the Houses of Parliament is under threat, given that the Speaker, John Bercow, has launched an external investigation into Parliamentary security highlighted by Paul Waugh's excellent Waugh Room blog:

"That right to attend meetings is a very long established and precious freedom. I think it would be quite wrong for me to seek to constrain or circumscribe an independent investigation in what it can cover and what it can recommend. The point the Hon Gentleman makes is an important one...many people will share his point of view."
I am eternally grateful for the fact that our democracy allows me to attend such a wider range of Parliamentary debates, committees and meetings, which are easy enough to get into provided you've told the police officer at the door where you're going, and you're security searched and frisked in the usual way.

And although I can't say that I find every one of my visits to the Mother of Parliaments a scintillating experience, I would be deeply worried if such freedoms were to be curtailed because of the actions of what turned out to be just a harmless 'comedian'. It's easy enough to smuggle through shaving foam and paper plates into Parliament, but it would be pretty much impossible to try it on with anything else these days.

Public access to Parliament is hard fought for, and it seems can be taken away all too easily. After all, it wasn't until 1989 that Parliamentary authorities allowed cameras into the building, shining a light on what is still a gentlemen's club atmosphere. The infamous 'funpowder plot' protest by Fathers for Justice in 2004 resulted in enormous glass screens being erected in front of the public gallery - somewhat detrimental to the atmosphere of Parliament for the average visitor. And we heard yesterday that Parliamentary authorities had permanently banned the respected BBC producer Paul Lambert - withdrawing his pass and making it somewhat difficult for him to do his job.

I can't help feeling that yet there's too much of a 'security first', 1950s attitude still in Parliament, where unelected officials such as the Serjeant-at-Arms have too much power over public access to the Palace of Westminster. Thankfully, any fall-out for broadcasters has been limited - we later heard Lambert had his pass reinstated following a protest from MPs and journalists alike, the MPs expenses scandal and now phone-hacking demand a greater level of transparency than ever in our political institutions, and we need to fight for every attempt to ebb away at it.

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