Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech to Parliamentary Press Gallery Centenary Dinner

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Caledonian Club, Halkin Street, London
Source: Thatcher Archive: transcript
Editorial comments: 1930 for 2000.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 2888
Themes: Autobiographical comments, British Constitution (general discussions), Parliament, Employment, Foreign policy (development, aid, etc), Foreign policy (International organizations), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Law & order, Media, Society, Terrorism

Mr. Chairman, George ThomasMr. Speaker, Friends—if that isn't too much of an act of faith. Well after that, George, I think you and I can pack up! I mean admittedly we haven't had thirty years to make up our speeches but I do hope we're going to hear another after-dinner speech from you Mr. Chairman, before thirty years is up. I do indeed congratulate you on it and thank you very much for proving that I do know what goes on north of Watford.

I notice that you compared this evening with one evening at Windsor Castle—comparisons aren't altogether appropriate—nevertheless the difference really between Elton John and the piper here was that here we heard some music. Doubtless the other stuff is better paid but then it usually is.

Now I'm not quite sure from what you said whether I've got the right speech. We were at one time going into so much ecumenical stuff that I thought I'd better pull out the speech I had for opening John Wesley 's house. And I don't think what I've got will do at all. Thank you very much for paying such compliments to Bernard InghamBernard. I would indeed endorse them. I must confess that with Bernard's “damn it” and Denis Thatchermy husband's “damn me” its a bit confusing sometimes at No. 10. But they are always both pretty forthright and very grateful I am to it. Now my task first is to say thank you on behalf of all of the guests. It is indeed a very rare privilege to be here at this Centenary dinner. We do thank you and honour you for it. It is a unique occasion but then you are an original bunch. Sometimes at other people's expense. One always enjoys the bits that are at other people's expense and not at one's own. And I think the sense of occasion is heightened by the pleasure of sharing the top table with Mr. Speaker, whose protection I always enjoy. Oh yes, yes, always, in all senses of the term, and whose good humoured impartiality I always admire, and which means so much to the House of Commons. And which has taken us through some difficult times.

And I think another reason for celebrating the occasion is that we are celebrating the end of a monopoly. Because there were of course reporters in Parliament long before 1881. But it was not until then that the London Newspapers Monopoly was broken. And Parliament opened up to the attentions of the provincial press. Now that must have been [end p1] a traumatic experience for some. Your history records that the London Monopolies earned £3,000 a year in the days when money was money and monetarists were nothing unusual because money was honest money … (laughter). Now this £3,000 a year they used, some of them, to buy some of the best shoots in Scotland. Oh times have changed for the worse haven't they? Now these days we come to the Caledonian Club because we can't buy the best shoots in Scotland. Now you have said the take-over only occurred by the Scots of England only twenty-five years ago. My dear, where were you in the previous seventy-five years? I am sure the Scots have always had a colossal influence on the Press Gallery but I would like to say how very much we admireGordon 's fifteen years as Gallery Secretary. And to add to our congratulations on his being the 100th Chairman of the Gallery and also providing that he was followed by another of his ilk Bill Russell.

Now reading your history I am struck by how little some circumstances change and by what lessons the development of the Gallery can teach us. Let me take first of all the kind of reporting one of your distinguished predecessors, Dr. Johnson, went in for. You know that in those days it wasn't possible to be audible in the House of Commons. What a pity it is now. This was a great asset and of course it was not very easy for the Press Gallery to report. However Dr. Johnson had a superb way of doing it. He concocted his reports on no firmer basis than the names of the several speakers and the part they had played in the debate. So what happened was that professional standards went up but posterity has read some far better speeches than they would have had had they been able to have heard what was said.

Now also it is very interesting to know that there was a very great resistance to change when amplifiers were introduced. Not only resistance to change by those on the floor in the House of Commons and as usual the Lords was a lot further ahead; the great resistance to change on the part of the Gallery who feared that if there were amplifiers they might be able to be piped to Fleet Street and all your jobs might go. It is an interesting lesson that technological change does not end jobs, it tends in fact to produce new ones and to multiply all sorts of possibilities that didn't exist before. [end p2]

Now I also note from your history one or two things about the Press Gallery bar. Oh but it is … (laughter). Technology is much more important, but the Exchequer benefits from the bar. Mr. Speaker, order, order. Do you know the Press Gallery bar has the reputation to be the most profitable outlet for alcohol in the Palace of Westminster? And that's saying something. I also note Hazlitt 's decision after spending several years reporting Parliament, when he left the Press Gallery he decided never again to touch fermented liquor. This of course was wholly untypical but I am told that he acted on medical advice which merely serves to underline the stamina of today's breed of correspondents.

Now in one respect, Mr. Chairman, I think the Gallery are reformed characters, or so I understand, and I deduce that from something I read in one of the histories of the Gallery. Your Committee heralded in the 20th century by stressing the opinion that arising out of the conduct of members to the ladies in the bar only male attendants should be engaged there. It does not expand on this interesting sentence. I have indeed already referred to the resistance to change which does not seem necessarily to have changed but I do think, if I might say so, that we really are very well served by the reportage from the Press Gallery now. You are now getting on for some 300 members and of course a lot of the growth has been in radio and television reporters which has been another great growth area for the communication industry in the latter part of the Gallery's first century. In terms I think of straight reporting your coverage is really immense. Parliament and in particular the Commons is a big news factory. I always find it rather ironic that what we say makes more news than what a lot of other people do. I would never really have noticed it except for what happens in the Recess and you are all jolly short of news in the Recess. And it is really rather revealing that what we say about things makes more news than about the things we say things about. But that is one of the ironies of modern life.

Well of course the Press Gallery doesn't draw the line at hard news reporting. Your members write sketches of the proceedings. You cover the political theatre with a combination of wit, perception and scalpel. This is an art form to be taken seriously and enjoyed or not as the case may be. The sketch writer is frequently misunderstood abroad where they don't wholly have our sense of humour. [end p3] (tape unclear—laughter)

But what of course we are celebrating tonight, Mr. Chairman, is a Centenary of one vastly important outward and visible sign of a free press. And I know you would want me to say one or two things about how I feel about that. Because the veneer of civilisation and the continuance of freedom is very thin. It really does have to be cherished and pursued if it is to continue. And so many of us have taken it for granted for so many years then all of a sudden we realise that we should not take it for granted any more. We might actually have to do something about it day by day, to see that it endures. And you do carry enormous responsibilities, we all do. Both for freedom and for being objective and for avoiding distortion. Because I think it would be a mistake to suppose that one of our basic western freedoms, a free press, is secure. You see, if I might refer to it briefly, what happened at the UNESCO Conference. Someone wanted to formulate the new World Information and Communication Order. Even the title indicates the jargon in which we fall in modern times. Who would die for a new World Information and Communication Order? It is absolutely ridiculous. You might die for a free press, you might die because you live in a free country. But that's the jargon. And its not surprising because when you look into it it arose from the fact that the developing countries thought that they were dominated by the western media, and they didn't like that, they didn't think that they got a fair hearing. Well that may well be true. But the method by which they tried to put it right through that UNESCO report is wholly and totally unacceptable. Because what they wanted was to secure increased State intervention and international directives of the press at the expense of the free independent media. Now unfortunately many people thought this a technical matter. It isn't we all have to bestir ourselves to see that that doesn't happen. It isn't just something which is debated into UNESCO. They may have a case, they may have a cause, but you will never never never find a solution in censorship by Governments. That will only poison relations between the Third World and the Free World, it would do nothing to enhance them. And I hope that the Press Gallery will indeed give its views in forthright terms direct to the UNESCO Secretariat in Paris. Because there is no institution better qualified from its own experience to uphold the freedom of the press having fought so hard to establish it here. [end p4]

Now reconciling freedom with responsibility, including the responsibility to safeguard that freedom, is very difficult indeed. And it is doubly difficult in the days of satellite communication, the tyranny of deadlines and the constant drive for instant reaction and comment. And I think the dilemma has been sharply defined by terrorism and by the outbreak of criminal looting and thuggery that we have witnessed over the past week. And how to draw the line between the reporting of events and the publicity on which terrorists and exhibitionist thugs thrive is very difficult to know. How to ensure that the media coverage doesn't give the very martyrdom which the terrorist seeks. And does not prompt trouble seekers to perpetuate the violence. There just aren't any easy answers to these problems. And I am the first to realise it. It is easy to condemn violence but we have to do more than that. We have to try to understand the reasons for it. And we have to separate the mindless hooliganism and organised sedition from the genuine frustrations and grievances which violence expresses and for which we as a society have to find a remedy. And there is a further point as one newspaper said this morning, events of the kind we have been witnessing provide a test of the quality of our society. A society with a tradition of dealing with differences of opinion by discussion and debate whether in Parliament, in the Press, or in the pub and not by violence. A society whose means of exchange is words and ideas and not sticks and stones and petrol bombs. A society based on self-respect and respect for others and not on selfishness and disregard for other people's rights, and needs. That quality in our society is the condition upon which we enjoy the freedoms we cherish. So these events are a challenge to all of us who value these freedoms. The freedom of speech and the freedom of association. They are a special challenge to those of us who have responsibility for setting the tone and standards of society. This means the Government of course and indeed all political leaders. It means Church leaders, it means parents, it means teachers. I well remember reading one of Leo Amery 's very wise essays at one time. That was the time when we were trying to translate our system of democracy to every colony as it became independent. And he made, I thought, a very wise point. He said you can't just translate a pattern of institutions and believe that means democracy and that democracy will therefore be set on its way in that country and will continue. He said, and so many times I have thought about it and begun fully to understand it, that democracy depends not only upon the pattern of institutions, it depends upon a full and comprehensive [end p5] understanding of the people, of what their responsibilities are, and what democracy means. Hedley Stephenson also put it in a similar way in one of his fantastic speeches, he said look democracy is self-governing, you cannot have self-government without self-discipline. And that really is what we are slowly coming up to fully understand now.

But in addition to those who I have enumerated who set the tone and standard of our society I must say that broadcasters and the press are very very high on the list. And one of the freedoms which depends on the quality of our society is indeed the freedom of the press and broadcasting. And if the press and broadcasters depend upon their freedom and value it then we have a responsibility to discharge your role as opinion formers with due regard for the effects your activities have on the quality of society. There can be no escape from that responsibility in the concept of detachment and balance. None of us can be detached from the quality of the society in which he lives nor be balanced when the issue at stake is freedom. And I think the responsibility falls with special weight on broadcasters but above all on those in television. Television has all the power and impact of the visual medium and it has national and continuous coverage. And we are now, for the first time, at a period when the new generation is the first generation in our country which is the “television generation” . I don't know quite what weight to give to that but for the first time this new generation of adults has been brought up on continuous television for twenty to twenty-five years, many of them watching it for four or five or more hours a day. I repeat one doesn't know quite what weight to give to that. It would take us some time to work it out. But I do firmly believe it will have made a fundamental difference to our society and we must indeed see that that difference must eventually be used to enhance the freedoms of our society without which we shouldn't be the kind of country we are. Even when television is seeking only to entertain it inevitably creates images which do become the norms or aspirations for its viewers. How can some young people, who have been brought up to watch television for several hours a day, how can they do otherwise than absorb some of the values to which they are exposed by it? How can they fail to be affected in their attitudes and conduct by the attitudes and behaviour they see portrayed on the screen? You have of [end p6] course to report the sort of events we have been recently witnessing. You have a duty to show the disfigurations of society as well as its more agreeable aspects. But may I put the point to you as it was put to me by one of your colleagues in television. Because he could put it in a way which I can't. And if I were to put it perhaps you wouldn't listen to what I said but coming from him it is very very potent indeed. He said this, and I paraphrase, because I was listening to it and didn't take it down word for word. If the television of the western world uses its freedom continually to show all that is worst in our society while the centrally controlled television of the communist world and the dictatorships show only what is judged as advantageous to them and suppress everything else, how are the uncommitted to judge between us? How can they fail to misjudge if they view matters only through a distorted mirror? Now none of us can escape from the implications of questions like this. For the way in which we do our work. Our democracy can only be served if we are objective. It can only be damaged if we distort whether by neglect or intent.

Mr. Chairman, these are possibly uncomfortable thoughts for an institution entering its second century of service to Parliament and public. But none of us can opt out of the society in which we live.

Mr. Chairman, I can't say I'm sorry to raise what is I think one of the fundamental issues of our time and as I went to open a new firm today, a new firm, it's been existing twenty years, but it now employs 20,000 people and is in information technology. One of the things they told me just heightened what I have said. They said that one in four households in this country has more than one television. It is an astonishing proportion. But they also said something else. That is a bigger proportion of households with two televisions or more than any other country in Europe. Again I am not quite sure what weight to attach to that. But it has something, some message for us and we must take it into account. Because above all the freedom we take for granted, the democracy, it is most important of all to continue that. May I on behalf of our guests thank you very much for a wonderful evening. May we wish you, in [words missing?] words you say the fourth estate of the realm, May we thank you for what you have done to serve democracy and may you make it every more secure in its confidence, wisdom and responsibility. And may I just finally say, I don't whether it was Alfred Robertsmy father, whether it was Grantham, whether it was Ringsted, [end p7] whether it was one hundred men and a girl, or whatever it was, I can only say, or whether it was training in logic or training in law, no, it was none of that, it was just perhaps the whole totality of being brought up where and when I was and being a citizen of this country, I believe that whatever the difficulties, the trials we are passing through now, we shall overcome them, and we shall go on to enhance everything which Britain stands for, not only in this country but the world over.