Tonight the Press Gallery celebrates its 150th anniversary.
In fact, it is almost 151 years old, but Covid stopped the 150th celebrations last year.
It had its origins in the British House of Commons Gallery and was famously described by Edmund Burke in 1787 when he said that there were three Estates in Parliament, “but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than them all.”
The first reference to the New Zealand Gallery (and therefore testament to its age) on the National Library’s website “Papers’ Past” is from the “Otago Daily Times” (ODT) on June 21, 1870.
They were challenging times with a Government waging the New Zealand wars and working on the confiscation of Maori land.
But for the Press Gallery, the issue was one that was to be repeated constantly down the years.
The ODT reported that the Minister for Justice had complained to the Speaker and the House that the (Wellington Evening) Post had wrongly reported him.
“Thereupon, the Speaker said he would take care that truthful reports emanated from the reporters’ gallery and desired the attendance of the Post’s reporter,” the ODT reported.
“The reporter declined attendance.
“He was the wrong man summoned. He was responsible to his chief, and then the supercilious gentleman who is in the Speaker’s chair informed him his privilege of entering the Press Gallery would be suspended.
“The editor took up his subaltern’s cause. The embargo on the reporter was taken off.
“The Speaker brought the matter before the House and got snubbed for his impertinent interference.”
But the journalists’ occupancy of the Press Gallery was a tenuous thing.
At the formal opening of Parliament that year, they were kicked out to make room for three Maori soldiers who had helped the Crown against Te Kooti; Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui, Topia Turoa and Ropata Wahawaha.
“The speech (from the throne) was read in (Governor) Sir George Bowen’s usual pedantic manner, and was very attentively listened to; most of the listeners, however, being rather disappointed at its somewhat bald sentences<” reported the ODT.
“Probably the only people pleased were Kemp, Topia, and Ropata, who were alluded to in such complimentary terms, and who occupied (with several of their compeers) all the front seats of the reporters’ Gallery to the exclusion of the gentlemen of the press, but by special order of the Government.
“Of course the rightful occupants are rather indignant, and it was rather hard lines for them to have to report what was going on when they were shoved into the ‘background where they could neither see nor hear.”
By 1879 the Gallery itself was too small and the Speaker, Sir George O’Rorke, created more space.
A “Press Dinner” for 50 journalists and MPs to thank the Speaker followed the expansion.
The following year, Press Gallery journalists were treated to the kind of story most can only dream about.
The headline on the account in the Nelson Evening Mail provided the context: “Drunkenness and Disorder in The Parliament; Vincent Pyke Distinguishes himself; the House Adjourns to Cool.”
The House was in urgency; it was 4.30 in the morning, and Sir George Grey complained that many members were not in a fit state to consider legislation.
Dunstan MP, Vincent Pyke alleged that “King” Dick Seddon, who was in the Chamber, had not recorded his vote.
“On being wakened up and challenged, Mr Seddon said that he voted against Pyke,” said the Mail.
“A scene of great disorder ensued.”
Pyke and the Chairman of Committees were shouting at each other, and the Speaker was called for. He asked Pyke to apologise for his “disorderly” behaviour.
“Mr Pyke again essayed to speak, and although he appeared to speak vehemently, his voice was drowned amidst cries of “apologise” “withdraw” and uproar and general confusion,” said the Mail.
Pyke refused to apologise and was ordered to leave the Chamber.
Another MP moved that Pyke be censured.
The Mail continued its account: “In the course of a very animated discussion which ensued on the motion, the attention of the Speaker was called to the fact that Mr Pyke had taken up his position in the Reporters’ Gallery.
“The Speaker— Do I understand that the Hon member for Dunstan, who has just been ordered to leave the Chamber, is still present in some portion of it?
“Mr Andrews- He is, Sir, present in the Reporters’ Gallery.
“The Speaker— Sergeant’at-Arras, you will proceed to the Gallery of this House, and if you find the Hon. Member for Dunstan there, you will direct him to leave by order of the Speaker.
“In due course, the Sergeant-at-Arms made his appearance in the press gallery, and* proceeding to the extreme end of it where Mr Pyke was seated busily employed’ in tracing hieroglyphics on a sheet of foolscap paper, be tapped Mr Pyke gently on the shoulder, when the latter, looking up with some surprise and considerable indignation, demanded to know what he meant by assaulting him while he (Mr Pyke) was in the execution of his duty*
“The Sergeant, having delivered the message given to him by the Speaker, Mr Pyke replied as follows:— ” I’ll not go: keep your hands off me, Sir or I’ll have you brought up before the Court for an assault. Stand out of this, I am reporting for a newspaper, l am a reporter for the Association. Get out of this, or I’ll have you up for assaulting me,”
In 1918, the current Parliament building was opened, and the Press Gallery we have now was established above the Speaker’s Chair.
But that was not without controversy when the female Parliamentary members of the Gallery who were not allowed into the Gallery proper, which was reserved for male reporters, complained.
“Truth” reported: The pressmen representing weekly papers not only cannot see the Speaker but the bulk of the Ministers and about a dozen members also are hidden from the eagle eye of “Truth’s” rep. and others seated there.
“The lady scribes, also, who are shut out from the Press Gallery proper, were to take their seats in the miniature Press Gallery, but they shied and bombarded the Speaker to such good effect that he gave them permanent reserved seats in the ladies’ gallery, from which they get a good view of all the House. “
Some ten years later, the Ladies’ Press Gallery became the venue for some of the sharpest (and wittiest) reporting of our Parliament that we have seen from Robin Hyde (born Iris Wilkinson), the author of a number of novels, including “Where the Godwits Fly”, which are regarded now as New Zealand classics.
Hyde worked for “The Dominion” and wrote Parliamentary sketches entitled “Peeps at Parliament; From the Ladies’ Gallery.”
One of her reports: “Everybody, please keep quite still for one moment while we take the Parliamentary meteorological reading for today. Let’s see now.
“Barometer: falling tendency; Labour-Socialist depression. Quite a number of neat little Labour-Socialist schemes fell clean through yesterday afternoon.
“Wind—no, I think we’ll call it a simoon, a more appropriate synonym for hot air—from Wilford-Nationalist to Labour-Socialist quarters.
“Loud squalls—particularly from Labour benches. General weather conditions—most unsettled. In fact, the climatic conditions of Parliament are all anyhow. What do you think? Mr Isitt, Independent Nationalist, has actually perpetrated a brutal and punishing attack upon the Labour Party. And the Labour Party didn’t like it at all. Mr Isitt was what Mr Weller, Sen., might have characterised as “werry wiolent.” (Tony Weller is a character in Charles Dickens’s periodical Master Humphrey’s Clock. He substitutes Ws for Vs in his speech.)
Thankfully Hyde did not have to file to Twitter.