Below is my submission on the question of privilege regarding use of social media to report on parliamentary proceedings:
- I am submitting to oppose any proposal to restrict the use of social media to report on parliamentary proceedings.
MPs and Twitter
- I watch Question Time every sitting day. Like many others, I also livetweet proceedings over my twitter feed to my 4,500 followers using the #nzqt tag. Tweets about Question Time are regularly retweeted and favourited. The commentary appears to be both informative and popular with the online community.
- MPs also contribute to this collective commentary. Their comments provide a vital inside view on the workings of the House and help fill in the gaps where comments are missed by the videofeed. They are vital in bringing poor behaviour which may have been missed by the cameras to public attention.
- While Parliament is broadcast, it is poorly watched outside of question time. The comments of MPs are especially valuable in these other debates, and are often the primary source of information on them. MPs tweet vote results, and summaries of speeches. Their tweeting is useful in alerting readers when to watch, or what to review on InTheHouse.
- In short, online engagement by members provides a valuable service to the public and is vital to informing us of what is going on in our parliament.
Electronic devices and social media
- With regard to the use of hand-held electronic devices by members, Standing Orders exist solely to ensure the good order of the House. From my viewing of Question Time, the use of such devices does not disrupt the House.
- Likewise, member's use of social media from the chamber does not lead to disorder in the House. In my years of watching Question Time, I have seen only one occasion where that could even remotely be argued, and that was when a government member disrupted the House to complain about tweeting by the opposition. It has otherwise been a parallel commentary which simply does not impinge into the chamber.
- Some MPs have used Twitter to question rulings by the Speaker, or to highlight questionable rulings. While this may upset the Speaker, neither disrupts the order of the House. Silencing them would simply be an abuse of power, and would be seen as such by the public.
- To the extent that such tweets are believed to disrupt the order of the house this must be balanced against the right to freedom of expression affirmed in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. This right covers not just the freedom of MPs to impart their views, but also of the public to receive them. Gagging MPs from tweeting would be a prima facie violation of this right, and would need to be shown to be necessary, proportionate, and the least restrictive means of ensuring order.
Reflections on members
- With regard to the rules on reflections on members or accusations against the speaker, while there is a clear reason for these applying to MPs in the chamber, they do not appear to be justifiable in a free and democratic society with regards to speech outside the chamber, whether by MPs or members of the public. They do not affect the order of the house, and therefore there is no justification for restricting them under Standing Orders. Insofar as they are believed to affect order, they are neither proportionate or the least restrictive option.
- If a member or the Speaker feels that a reflection or accusation has unfairly maligned them, they can bring defamation proceedings just like any ordinary member of the public. And that is exactly what they should do. Using parliamentary privilege to punish and silence critics would again appear to be a gross abuse of power.
- The mere existence of this purported power to punish public critics undermines the legitimacy of parliament. Its the sort of thing Kings do. We're better than that, and we should do away with it. And we certainly shouldn't be applying it to social media.
- There should be no restrictions on the use of social media by MPs, and the rules on reflections on members and accusations against the Speaker should be repealed or restricted to apply only to speech inside the chamber.
- I do not wish to make an oral submission to the Select Committee.