In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

Copy and Haste V: The Empty Chamber

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This has been shared over a hundred thousand times. (Edited: Facebook)

The idea that our democratic processes are cursed by lying, venal and lazy politicians is surprisingly common, and sentiments of anti-politics are rife.

Recent polling by Ipsos MORI found that 22% of respondents would “generally trust” government ministers to tell the truth, against 21% for all politicians [1].

An iteration of this meme involves a juxtaposition of photographs of the Commons benches. The debate on a topic that personally benefits politicians, such as their pay, is filled with MPs, whereas the debate on an important topic to voters is nearly empty. The meme of the empty chamber has incredible reach on social media: this Facebook image from the ‘Coalition of Resistance: Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ was liked over 48,000 times, and shared by 130,000 people.

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The empty chamber is a popular meme on Facebook. (Source: Facebook/Coalition of Resistance: Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay)

Isabel Hardman, the associate editor of The Spectator, interrogated the images [2]:

Good, grief, look at how many MPs are debating their expenses! That image on the bottom left struck me as a bit strange when I zoomed in. When you’re used to looking down on the tops of MPs’ heads from the Commons press gallery, you get quite used to what Parliament looks like from above. And I didn’t recognise that Parliament. The hair looked different, frankly. I was right not to recognise it: when this debate took place, I was preparing to take my A-levels. It was 27 January 2004, when MPs voted on the Second Reading of the Higher Education Bill to introduce top-up fees. Here’s that picture in better quality from the Press Association archive.

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Voting takes place in the House of Commons during the Second Reading of the Higher Education Bill which introduces controversial university tuition fees. Prime Minister Tony Blair turned the tide in his battle over tuition fees by winning over the leading Labour rebel. Former chief whip Nick Brown’s dramatic eleventh-hour switch convinced others to back the Prime Minister. (Source: PA)

Given that this image was shared into my timeline by a student activist, MPs debating whether to raise university tuition fees should be considered important.

This meme may have its origins in journalists attaching an image of the filled chamber to general articles about MPs.

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The Telegraph article from 2009 did concern MPs’ expenses. (Source: Telegraph)

The next image, labelled as ‘Debating MP’s pay’, was actually “MPs coming into the House of Commons on the first day of the new Parliament”.

“This very serious subject”

The other images may be accurate. As Ms Hardman writes:

I do have some sympathy for some of the frustration that people feel when the flick on BBC Parliament and do see only five sleepy MPs sitting in the Chamber apparently debating ‘the impact of welfare reform on disabled people’ or something with a very serious title like that. It immediately appears as though the politicians do not care about this very serious subject – when the reality is that this is an Opposition Day debate that makes no difference to the way the government runs its affairs or sets policy.

There are other means, such as select committee hearings, in which MPs can influence government policy outside of the main Chamber. It is incumbent on journalists to help explain the different types of debates that occur within the House of Commons, and what effect the votes of MPs are going to have.

The meme of the empty chamber propagates none of this explanation, and creates an inaccurate image to lower trust and belief in politicians even further.

References

[1] Skinner, G., and Clemence, M., 2016. Politicians are still trusted less than estate agents, journalists and bankers. Ipsos MORI. Available from: https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3685/Politicians-are-still-trusted-less-than-estate-agents-journalists-and-bankers.aspx [Accessed: 24th January 2016]

[2] Hardman, I., 2014. The menace of memes: how a picture can paint a thousand lies. The Spectator. Available from: http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2014/11/the-menace-of-memes-how-pictures-can-paint-a-thousand-lies/ [Accessed: 24th January 2016]

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This entry was posted on February 9, 2016 by in National Politics and tagged , , .
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