Parliament is a social media friendly space

Parliament's powerful Privileges Committee has had a hard look at how social media is being used to report on Parliament ... and decided that everything is working pretty much fine as it is. Hooray!

Parliament's powerful Privileges Committee – it is, apparently, mandatory to refer to it as such in print, so I shall shorten the term to PPPC or P3C – has just put out a report on "the use of social media to report on parliamentary proceedings".

This report is, wait for the shock, extremely sensible and reasonable! Which throws me off balance a bit, for how can I engage my usual tone of exasperated outrage at the idiocy of others when discussing what P3C has said? I'll have to settle for gushing praise instead.

The origins of this report lie in a bunch of tweets issued by certain unnamed MPs (cough, cough ... Trevor Mallard ... cough, cough) from the chamber accusing the Speaker of bias. Uncertainties over exactly how the Speaker might control such behaviour, as well as what other rules should constrain the use of social media, then caused the matter to get referred to P3C as:

The longstanding and carefully nuanced rules of the House do not necessarily sit comfortably with the informal and instant nature of the new information and communications technology, with its potential to reach a very wide audience very quickly. Although members tweeting from the Chamber during question time or debates is clearly not a proceeding in Parliament, this is not well understood and nor are the House’s wider rules protecting parliamentary proceedings and the various participants in them. Tweets may be actionable in the courts. Members could find themselves held in contempt by the House for publishing a false or misleading account of proceedings or reflecting on the character or conduct of the House or members. Furthermore, accusations that the Speaker has shown partiality in discharging his or her duties have in the past been judged very seriously, given the special position the Speaker holds. 

This referral could have been an ominous sign. Perhaps it was going to involve a crackdown on this new-fangled technology in an effort to turn back the tide of creeping informality into parliamentary proceedings. A way, if you will, to stop the behavioural equivalent of the Oxford comma insinuating itself into the very fabric of our representative institution. O tempora o mores!, and all that.

Fortunately not. P3C's tone from the outset was pretty much "pro-social media", lauding its role in connecting members, the institution and the wider public.

Given the value of social media for popular engagement and its enduring presence in our lives, we have no intention of questioning whether members and others should use it to report on parliamentary proceedings. Rather, our focus has been on appropriate behaviour when using social media, including assessing the relevant rules currently in place. 

How, then, does P3C think those using social media to report on parliamentary proceedings should be regulated? Well, not in any particularly novel or heavy handed way.

First, P3C recommended that there be clearer guidance circulated to members as to how electronic devices and social media may be used when commenting on what is happening in the House or its Committees. In part this is to help protect members themselves, reminding them that the sorts of legal privileges they enjoy when speaking in parliamentary proceedings don't necessarily apply when tweeting or facebooking. 

However, this guidance also should make it clear that members cannot use electronic devices to take photos of one-another during parliamentary proceedings, unless prior authorisation is given by the Speaker to do so. P3C reasoned that:

permitting filming and photography only on certain occasions is preferable to promote decorum and minimise the potential for disorder, both of which are important to public confidence in Parliament. The Chamber and select committee meetings rooms are working environments and we are concerned that if members are aware that they could be subject to candid filming or photography at any time, there may be negative effects on their behaviour or how they participate in proceedings. 

Interestingly, this view was held only by "most of" P3C ... so at least one of its members was in favour of a free-for-all environment where members could take selfies with their besties even as laws were being made. Also, it is not 100% clear what the basis for this ban on photographing in the chamber will be – I assume it will be a Speaker's Ruling on a measure necessary to "maintain[] order and decorum in the House" under Standing Order 84(1). Nevertheless, it seems like an eminently sensible measure to me.

In addition to recommending that members be given clearer guidance on what risks they run if using social media, P3C also reviewed the adequacy of present controls that relate to what they can say about each other on social media. There were two options here:

(1) Give the Speaker the power to review what members say on social media about proceedings in the House and punish those who threaten the decorum of the Chamber (just as the Speaker can review and punish statements made during debates on the House floor).

(2) Treat social media the same as any other form of media comment about what is happening in the House, which is to say it can only be reviewed and punished by P3C as a "contempt of the House".

Fortunately, P3C has recommended that the second option be adopted. What this means is that members of the House (as well as anyone else, mind!) can still be punished for social media (or other) messages that “reflect[] on the character or conduct of the House or of a member in the member’s capacity as a member of the House”. Such messages amount to a contempt of Parliament, as Matt Robson found out back in 2007 when he accused Peter Dunne of "always delivering his vote in the interests of the tobacco and liquor lobbies".

But punishing such messages requires that a privileges complaint be laid, that the Speaker thinks it important enough to send to P3C, and that P3C then decides that the message has the particular effect outlined above. And in that assessment the right of freedom of expression - in particular, the right to be pretty scathing of the actions of elected representatives - will be an important consideration. So it's really an extreme, back pocket sanction that will be used very rarely (if at all) in the future.

Finally, P3C turned its attention to an ongoing sore point in the rules that govern how Parliament may be covered. Back when TV cameras were first permanently put into the House in 2007, a rule was introduced that prohibited using any coverage for the purposes of "satire, ridicule, or denigration". This seemed like a really dumb rule to some people, including (infamously) Jon Stewart. And it's been subject to ongoing criticisms ever since.

Now P3C has accepted those criticisms from both the Clerk of the House and the parliamentary press gallery and recommended that the rule be dropped. However, before you get all excited and prepared to subject MPs to merciless ridicule using TV clips of what they say in the House, settle back down. Because the rule is a part of Standing Orders, it requires these to be amended. And the next review of Standing Orders won't be until ... 2017.

So, all in all a great job! Well done P3C and its Chair, Chris Finlayson. Gratulari alicui aliquid orde aliqua re.