21.04.2010 Opinion

How it was in the journalism of my day (4)

21.04.2010 LISTEN
By Ghanaian Times

The toughest “beat” to which I was assigned was Parliament. I had to get there early, for immediately after “Prayers” came Question Time.

Question Time was the most important component of the democracy we had inherited.

Every MP could ask any Minister - including the Prime minister - anything about the departments under his Ministry.

And after the Minister had answered the original question, other MPs could ask supplementary questions.

So, Question Time was always a minor debating session, carried out in the form of questions and answers.

Subjects most often covered related to roads, education, health and finance.

If a Minister fumbled in his answers, he would be laughed at.

If he made a mistake, he would be jumped upon. If he exhibited nervousness, his colleagues, especially the Prime Minister who appointed him, would take note that he was letting the side down. Reshuffles were meant to correct such a situation.

Most of the sensational matters of the day were covered at Question Time, and the sessions took place every day that Parliament was sitting. There was no way a bad situation could continue to exist when questions were asked about it day after day after day. And my duty was to relay it accurately on the radio.

Someone as witty as Kofi Baako used the questions asked him to poke fun at MPs who hadn't done their home work but merely wanted to ask questions in order to attract publicity. The most serious Minister was K A Gbedema, who would gave you chapter and verse on anything that had to do with Government finances.

P K K Quaidoo was also impressive.
But the one who always drew the loudest cheers and laughs was Krobo Edusei. He preceded almost every sentence with “As Minister of Interior, responsible for internal security” …. blah blah blah. And Government backbenchers would cheer him: “Yeaaaaaaaah!”

Joe Appiah was the opposition MP who taunted Krobo the most -- he asked dozens of questions about Krobo Edusei's relations with a certain Ceylonese businessman called Emil Savundra, who had brought a harebrained scheme of some sort to Ghana, which Joe suspected was meant to filch money from the Ghanaian taxpayer, to be shared between himself and Krobo.

Joe Appiah made sure that whenever Krobo Edusei entered the House, he would shout at him, “SAVU!” To which his fellow Opposition MPs would respond, “Savundra!”

Then there would be laughter all round. Such public mockery was a great deterrent to financial misbehaviour, for you could be sure that if Ministers engaged in hanky-panky, someone would tip off an MP and questions would be asked to embarrass the Minister.

It is a great shame that the fervour with which Question Time was approached in those days does not seem to be in evidence these days. Our MPs should insist that Question Time takes place every day, and the news media should cover it assiduously.

Indeed, in the past, Question Time was deliberately used by Ministers to announce important news, because they knew it attracted notice.

The public liked to come and watch and then disperse, as soon as Question Time was over. News from Question Time would be broadcast, and a Minister could gain a lot of feedback through which he could make his proposed measures more palatable.

I must pay tribute to the Ministers and Mps of those days, many of whom actually went to Parliament to serve.

Of course, serving did help, if one had an eye on being re-elected.

It wasn't only Ministers who could be embarrassed at Question Time -- MPs too could embarrass themselves. For in trying to pose supplementary questions, they needed to speak extempore, and if their English was not up to scratch, they could easily “shoot”.

There were mischievous MPs who would seize on others' “shots” to make fun of them. I remember one MP who asked, “Will the Minister aware that….?” Whenever he got to his feet afterwards, people shouted, “Will the Minister aware…?”

Next to Question Time, the most interesting sessions were the debates on “Second Reading” of bills. Here, the Minister introduced his Bill and made a fairly long speech to outline its objectives.

Some of these speeches were extremely boring, for they were written by civil servants, who thought that everything in a bill was equally important. Then the Opposition spokesman on the particular subject would get up and begin to tear the bill to pieces.

After that, it was free for all -- here, the Speaker became very important, for many MPs would rise to try and speak, and it would be up to the Speaker to allow his eye to be “caught”!

MPs guarded their right to speak very jealously, and if the Speaker made a mistake and allowed two Government backbenchers to speak, one after the other, without calling an Opposition person to reply, the Opposition Mps would boo mildly and bang their order papers on their tables. Then the Speaker would have to rise to his feet and shout “Order! Order!” Very inconvenient!

It was extremely important for the Speaker to gain the confidence of the whole House by being totally impartial. If he showed any partiality, the displeased MPs could rebel by being continually rowdy. Sometimes they even walked out en bloc.

While all this was going on, your poor Parliamentary Correspondent had to keep a clear head, understand what was being said and done, and reduce it to manageable proportions to fit neatly into a news bulletin only nine minutes long.

I used to listen to Question Time, take down the first two or three speeches in a Second Reading, and make off on my motor scooter from Parliament House to BH (Broadcasting House), arriving there at around 1145 or - when things were really hot in the House-- 12 noon. By 1245, my report should be ready and being rehearsed by the news reader, for the one o'clock news.

All the MPs listened to the one o'clock news, and if I had reported in an inaccurate manner or shown any bias, they would have jumped on my neck as soon as I came back to the House at around 2.30pm to continue reporting the day's proceedings. Fortunately, I never once had a complaint from any MP.

This was helped by the fact that if I didn't quite get an argument, or feared I might have taken down some figures wrong.

I would furtively climb the narrow staircase past the Speaker's Office into the Reporters' Room, where the parliamentary reporters would be transcribing their shorthand notes verbatim for their report of the day's proceedings, that would be published the very next morning as “Hansard.”

The then editor of Hansard, Mr C A Lokko, was a very co-operative person, and would quickly make a copy of anything I wanted available. Each MP got a copy of Hansard the next morning, and could read his own contribution to a debate and make corrections, where necessary, to be incorporated into the bound edition of Hansard.

The inability, in recent years, of the House -- for financial reasons or whatever -- to produce Hansard regularly and on time, has been a major dereliction of duty on the part of the Governments of the day, and Parliament itself.

For without Hansard, Parliament is a closed book, where MPs and Ministers do what they like, without allowing the public to see it, so as to judge their performance correctly, both today and for posterity.

I say this with pain in my heart, for when I was a Member of the Constituent Assembly of 1978-79, I made some very well-researched speeches, which are probably lost for ever, as we were not given Hansard regularly in those days, of all things -- “due to a lack of paper!” -- would you believe it?!!

Credit: Cameron Duodu/Ghanaian Times

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