Dr Mark Shanahan (Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Reading)
There was a point when I turned to the Rt Hon John Bercow MP, during a public discussion event at the University of Reading, and asked him if he felt he had been at the centre of history as MPs debated the Bill to trigger Brexit.
His answer was clear, candid and probably more revealing than I had expected. It was the mark of an evening where the Speaker of the House of Commons opened-up more than any previous ‘Political Voice’ I had interviewed or listened to over the previous two years of this occasional programme. However open they were, I did not expect his comments to be the cause of a media furore over this past weekend.
Mr Bercow’s comments to students, staff and the local community were picked up, more than a week after the event in which he made them, by the Sunday Telegraph, which splashed his remarks all over its front page. The story built momentum through Sunday as politicians, broadcasters and other media jumped on it. The pro-Brexit Tory right lambasted the Speaker, while others, including from opposition parties, rallied to his defence.
The Speaker came to Reading on Friday 3 February, a year after a group of University of Reading Politics and International Relations students met him at Speaker’s House on the Parliamentary Estate. Mr Bercow is my constituency MP (for Buckingham) and was making good his promise of a return visit to cap off our first year of teaching Parliamentary Studies at Reading in conjunction with Parliament.
The visit had been planned for several months. As well as a seminar with the Parliamentary Studies students, we had agreed that the Speaker would take part in a public question-and-answer session co-hosted by myself and the President of the Reading University Students Union, Ben Cooper.
Mr Bercow had agreed to us both filming the event and streaming it live on the internet via Facebook. In the event, almost 3,000 people watched a lively 90-minute session, punctuated by probing questions from members of the 200-strong audience, and detailed and heartfelt answers from our guest.
Anyone watching would have left the room (or switched off their computer or phone) knowing the speaker’s views on Brexit, on Trump, on the media and many aspects of Parliament. He was in excellent form and did not shy away from any questions.
After the Speaker headed back for London I was reflecting on what an enlightening evening it had been – and already thinking about who we could invite as our next ‘Political Voice’.
The first inkling I got that the Speaker’s visit could have a greater impact than anticipated came the following Monday, when he made his remarks in Parliament on plans for a state visit to the UK by President Trump.
In discussions with colleagues and students, I noted that he had pretty much rehearsed these sentiments with us the previous Friday. I suggested to my students that they look again at the video recording on Facebook to see if these had carried over into his public utterances at the Parliamentary debate.
The following day, I was interviewed on this by our local radio station, BBC Radio Berkshire, and the local press also picked up on the Speaker’s remarks at Reading. And then it all went quiet for a few days.
On Thursday 9 February, we posted the full high-quality version of Mr Bercow’s public Q&A from Reading on the university’s YouTube channel. We highlighted the video through Twitter, Facebook and our departmental web pages, as we would with any other video of a high-profile event at the University. A full day and a half later, viewing figures had snuck past 100.
While the Speaker’s comments were in the public domain, they were not gaining any great public or media attention. By Saturday night, that all changed as the Telegraph’s story was picked up and discussed by the BBC and Sky News, and then on Sunday morning as it became one of the stories of the political news cycle.
The attention on Mr Bercow is based on a one-minute clip of a 90-minute Q&A, which was streamed live on Facebook and published openly on YouTube – rather more mundane than the language used in some stories, which variously described the footage as having ‘emerged’, or been ‘seen’ or ‘obtained’ by the Telegraph. The event was public, the Speaker was aware it was being filmed, and video had been publicly available on Facebook for more than a week (and on YouTube for three days) before the story broke.
Mr Bercow was gracious, open and honest throughout the almost five hours he spent with students and others here at Reading. He did much to break down the barriers that exist between those of us who study politics and those that practise it. Reading politics students are now getting a lesson in what political opponents can do when a University guest becomes a political target.