The journalist’s pot of UGC gold looks likely to be enlarged after the Commons Procedure Committee decreed that MPs should be allowed to tweet in the Commons chamber. After they were initially banned in January, the committee recommended that smartphones and tablets should be allowed (but not laptops as they take up too much space), provided that they are on silent and used in a way which does not ‘impair decorum’. The Commons will vote on the measure within the next two months.
The move hasn’t been without controversy. James Gray, Tory MP for North Wiltshire, argued that excessive use of electronic devices would lead to a ‘worrying change of atmosphere’ in the chamber, in which members weren’t properly concentrating on the debates. But the potential effects for MPs and journalists (who can tweet from the public gallery) could run far deeper than that.
Where does it go from here?
According to the report, 225 MPs now use Twitter. One of the committee’s main supporting arguments is that it will bring parliament a whole new audience, in the form of hundreds of thousands of MPs’ Twitter followers. Moreover, it seems likely that many more MPs will feel compelled to begin tweeting; if so many are communicating with their followers/constituents directly, those passing up the opportunity will appear increasingly distant.
This means that a huge new source of UGC material becomes available – MPs may tweet their reaction to others’ comments, and conversely may respond to journalists’ tweets questioning their behaviour. Useful too will be the large amount of constituent-MP tweeted discussions during an actual debate which might have a significant influence on the MP’s vocal comments and eventual voting.
An example of Twitter hosting co-debates was seen in the Australian parliament, where MPs have always been unrestricted. Back in 2009, a row flared up between the Speaker and MP Peter Dutton, in which the latter tweeted criticisms about the Speaker’s apparent favouring of the opposite party. (The Speaker warned that tweets were not covered by parliamentary privilege).
Shifting the Debate
This shows that Twitter has the power to lift a debate from the chamber and into cyberspace, allowing anyone – MPs, lobbyists, journalists – to join in. Again it is another example of the traditional top-down media role being undermined. Should the committee recommendations be adopted, parliamentary reporters will have to pay as much attention to the cyber debate as to the Commons floor itself. This raises tricky issues for a Speaker trying to adjudicate without looking at his/her own device. But as a whole new world of co-debate, involving anyone and everyone, is invited into the chamber, there are rich UGC pickings indeed. Truly democratic, and virtually uncontrollable, no journalist worth their salt will be able to ignore this new dynamic.