"Obscure scribblers"

Parliament formally acknowledged the presence of newspaper reporters in 1803. Until then there had been no special conditions for those covering parliamentary debates and reporters had to queue with members of the public for seats in the public gallery.

When overcrowding meant that an important speech by William Pitt on the war with Napoleon was not reported, the Commons Speaker took prompt action. "Settled with the Serjeant at Arms...that the gallery door should be opened every day, as required, at twelve," Sir Charles Abbot recorded in his diary, "and the Serjeant would let the housekeeper understand that the 'newswriters' might be let in their usual places." James Boswell referred to these 'newswriters' as 'obscure scribblers'.

In the Lords, reporters had to stand below the Bar, alongside anyone else who turned up to listen to proceedings. But in 1828 some floor space was set aside for their exclusive use, mainly because debates on the Catholic Emancipation Bill were attracting a lot of interest and peers did not want to go unreported. By December 1831 the Lords had added a gallery and reporters were allowed to take over the front row.

Reporters in the new palace

Following the destruction by fire of the old Houses of Parliament in 1834, the architect Charles Barry incorporated a gallery for reporters into his new Lords Chamber which opened in April 1847.

Provision was also made for the press in the new Commons Chamber when it was first used in 1850. Reporters, however, complained of not being able to hear speeches because of poor acoustics. The roof was lowered as a result, and the new Chamber and its press gallery entered use on a permanent basis in 1852. Facilities for journalists, and their freedom to report, were gradually extended.

In 1868, the Wason v. Walter case established that the publication of parliamentary debates was covered by qualified privilege; in the 1870s a 'Lobby list' came into use - a list of reporters who were permitted to mingle with MPs in the Members' Lobby in order to obtain quotes; and in 1881 a press gallery committee was formed.

Biographies

You can access biographies of

William Pitt
Charles Barry

from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for free, online, using your local library card number (includes nine out of ten public libraries in the UK) or from within academic library and other subscribing networks.

Did you know?

A ban on note-taking in the public gallery remained in place until March 1994