Orders of the Day — House of Commons Proceedings (Sound Broadcasting Experiment)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 11th December 1967.

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Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Croydon South 12:00 am, 11th December 1967

The proposal made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is very modest. Indeed, I did not expect much of a debate and came into the Chamber hesitating to speak because I felt the decision might have been taken on the nod. But obviously my hon. Friend the Member for Westhoughton (Mr. J. T. Price) is very much opposed to the idea.

We should bear in mind that, apart from anything else, the House of Lords is to experiment with television. We are only experimenting with radio. I can foresee a situation in which the House of Lords may decide to televise its proceedings for the public while the House of Commons decides not to televise its own. The public will thus see the House of Lords in action but not the House of Commons. That does not frighten me in the least, because if that situation occurred and the House of Lords were televised, that would be the greatest incentive for the Commons to be televised.

If we knew that day after day the proceedings of another place were being televised, I am certain that most hon. Members, even though they might now be anti television, would say that we must televise the Commons as soon as possible, that the televising of the Lords was unfair competition. Therefore, I am all for having the Lords being televised as that should speed the way to our being televised.

I was very sorry when last year those of us who wanted the Commons to be televised lost by one vote. Perhaps we should have organised ourselves better than we did. However, we did not do so and, on a completely free and non-party vote, we lost by only one. I was sorry to hear the Leader of the House say that the issue of televising the Commons would not come up again this Session —perhaps I misunderstood. It would be rather unfortunate, but perhaps continued pressure from both sides of the House by hon. Members in favour of televising our proceedings may make him change his mind.

It seems to be part of our rather conservative attitude that in the age of mass television we are tonight discussing without much enthusiasm, whether we should experiment with radio. This is remarkable. I could understand the House in the 1930s or 1940s debating with some hesitation whether to experiment with radio, but today, ten years after mass television, it shows how conservative our attitude is towards various experiments that we should be considering whether to bring our proceedings to the majority of the electorate.

I want people to know about the workings of Parliament. It is true that personally I have not received any request from constituents on this issue, but it is not a matter of receiving requests from the electorate. In the present state of politics I want to ' sell "the House of Commons. [Laughter.] I do not mean "sell" in that sense. I want people to understand and appreciate the workings of Parliament, because already in the present economic crisis certain people in certain sections of the community are saying that they have no time for Parliament or that Parliament should neet only once a year. There is an anti-democratic feeling among certain people, although I see from some of their letters that they are rather keen to deny that accusation. It is all the more important that, rather than being on the defensive, we should go over to the offensive and explain what Parliament means, and the best way in which to do that is to let the electorate see the workings of Parliament—the putting of questions and the debating of issues of today.

A rather interesting article on Parliament appeared in the Sunday Times yesterday. Written by Ronald Butt, it concluded: The party politicians, for all the seemingly idle chatter of their arguments, preserve our liberties as no junta of business men or technocratic administrators could do. That is obviously right. All hon. Members agree with that, or they would not be here.

But in this age of mass communication we tend to isolate ourselves. Our accommodation for visitors upstairs is extremely limited. Constituents cannot cone to listen to Question Time unless they first write to get a ticket. Some years ago it was suggested that there should be closed circuit television of the Commons upstairs which would allow 1,000 more people to watch our proceedings. The programme "Today in Parliament", which is broadcast in the evening and again the following day, seems to be very popular with many people. There is an interest in Parliament and at a time when so many anti-democratic and anti-Parliamentary voices are being raised, we should do our utmost to demonstrate the necessity for Parliamentary democracy. The best way to do that—and this was my view last year—is to televise our proceedings.

If this experiment is a foot in the door —and I am not willing to deny it, although I do not know what the views of the Leader of the House are—I am all for it, and the sooner we agree to this proposal and to televising our proceedings the happier I shall be.

A century and a half ago there was bitter argument in the House about whether the Press should publish our debates. Some hon. Members objected at that time, saying that it would undermine the dignity of the House if our proceedings were published. They were obviously conservative in their day, but if they were in the House now, they would be arguing against this modest proposal and certainly against televising the House. Just as it was inevitable that sooner or later reports of our proceedings would be published in newspapers and newspapermen allowed in the Gallery, so the time will come inevitably, I hope not too far in the future, when our proceedings will be both broadcast and televised.