Televising of Parliament

– in the House of Commons at 3:36 pm on 2nd November 1983.

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Photo of Austin Mitchell Austin Mitchell Chair, Treasury & Civil Service Sub-Committee, Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:36 pm, 2nd November 1983

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the televising of the proceedings of the House of Commons and its committees and to set up a Parliamentary television unit to install the equipment, control the televising, provide feeds and recordings to outside organisations and maintain an electronic Hansard. It is important to introduce this measure early in the life of this Parliament because the best prospects for acceptance would seem to come from the newer and younger Members who are more open-minded than and not as set in their ways as older Members. They have not relapsed entrenched attitudes that have defeated this type of proposal all too often in the past.

It has always seemed to be wrong that the onus of the argument should be on those supporting television. Indeed, it is wrong to have to make an issue of the matter because it is natural, inevitable and right that the deliberations of this national forum should be available to the people in whose name we are debating through the medium that they prefer, which distorts those deliberations least and from which they receive their news on current affairs and politics. If we do not provide that information people will, as media preferences change — and they have—move away from us and we shall make ourselves irrelevant. We shall turn ourselves into a closed debating society. We shall weaken our power and leave our electors alienated, less well informed and deprived of the facts that they need to make up their minds politically.

What is the relevance to the lives of the public of a series of impressive, well-considered debates if they hear little of those debates? How much information do they receive? A few hundred read Hansard. A few thousand attend the galleries for a few hours each year. A few tens of thousands read the drastically over-simplified accounts of our debates in the quality papers or, in the case of The Guardian, accounts of our debates up to 7 pm. Perhaps a few hundred read the desperate attempts of the parliamentary sketch writers to extract humour from this Chamber and to try to turn us into a cross between an educationally subnormal version of "Yes, Minister" and a distillation of their own ESN prejudices. That is the main part of the coverage. We have reduced ourselves to a theatre with no audience and with only the reviewers writing the script.

As a special treat, we are allowed occasionally to hear a broadcast debate. I am not complaining about that. Monday's continuing broadcast of the debate on cruise was welcome. Indeed, I heard more of it and heard it better in my car than I would have done in the House or in my office. Unfortunately, radio tends to infuriate because our microphones are omnidirectional, pick up extraneous noise and do not convey all that is happening in the Chamber. The advent of radio broadcasts of debates has strengthened the case for television. Those are the only ways in which we reach the public.

Our problem is that Parliament can appear a dull, irrelevant institution with its Members' speeches reduced to a series of noises off. We can appear to be bit part players in a constitutional drama. That has occurred because we fear television. By not being allowed into the Chamber, television has been forced to develop alternative political coverage, which alienates us still further. We then compound the problems by complaining about that. We have wilfully removed ourselves from the centre of interest and concern by not permitting coverage by the medium from which we receive most of our information. We have done so against the people's better instincts. All the poll evidence shows that the majority of people want Parliament to be televised. MORI, the last poll I read, showed in February 1980 that 56 per cent. thought the televising of Parliament a good idea, and only 32 per cent. thought it bad. We have done so against the wishes of the television organisations because there is no doubt that they want to cover the proceedings of the House in whole or in part. It would be appropriate to have full-time coverage on the cable system which is shortly to expand enormously. There could be edited highlights on news programmes, edited summaries on current affairs programmes on a day or a week in Parliament.

We have also done so against the precedents of overseas Parliaments because most of them in the major countries are televised in some form.

An Inter-Parliamentary Union report in 1978 surveyed 22 legislatures covered by television and found widespread satisfaction among members and the public. Since then television coverage has been extended to Canada and the United States House of Representatives. That is important, because the coverage that I propose is the same as that developed in those two countries. What they have done and what we should do is to set up a parliamentary television unit answerable to the House through Mr. Speaker, by which coverage will be unobstrusive through wall-bracket mounted cameras without camera crews and only slightly increased lighting. More important, the coverage will be based primarily on a shot of the speaker with no panning off to empty Benches, sleeping Members and the reaction shots that Members fear. It is a coverage so staid that "Variety", the stage business periodical, called it "Dullsville D.C." in Washington. Critics of television try to have it both ways. They tell us that it will reduce our proceedings to a farce and exaggerate and distort them, but they also complain that it will be dull and that no would want to watch. They cannot have it both ways.

The only discernible change in Canada and the United States have been Members closing in behind the speaker —something from which I would be freed in these Olympian heights, although Ministers might be glad to see where the knives are coming from—although it was only a short-lived phenomenon. There has been a strengthening of the Opposition which is a good thing and something that this Parliament needs. There have been sharper questioning and more incisive speeches. It gives the lie to all those who argue that television coverage of this Chamber would be like TV-am 24 hours a day. I apologise for calling TV-am the unacceptable face of the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) who is TV-am.

It is not true that there would be cameras with crews, that Mr. Speaker would have to wear a denim wig and would be signalling to speakers with a two-fingered gesture to tell them that they had a further two minutes in which to make their contribution. There would be no change. Techniques which would be relevant to a studio would be irrelevant to the coverage that I propose. It would be a neutral coverage without extraneous noises. In the House of Representatives one man leapt from the balcony in a desperate attempt to appear on television. The incident was shown only by the momentary expression of alarm crossing the face of the speaker who was then holding the television.

I see no reason why we should have an inferiority complex—something many hon. Members have—about whether our proceedings are fit to be shown to the people. They are and we would improve and strengthen our position if they were.

Our role is not, as it is argued, to convince each other in closed debate; it is as on a stage on which the battle between the parties is put; the case against the Government is put and argued and the facts put before the people. What use is that stage if the battle is not reaching the people? Parliament is the great forum of the nation where the people's representatives discuss the big issues of the day. What use is that debate if the people do not hear it? It is a forum of inquiries and analysis, bringing informed opinion to bear on the decisions through the Select Committees. What use is that inquiry if it does not reach the people in whose name it is carried on? Each of those functions is better performed, and the House is more effective, if what we are doing is brought home to the people, or at least to that interested and concerned section of the people who will undoubtedly want to watch and who, from overseas experience, do watch.

The campaign to admit television to the Chamber and to the Standing and Select Committees has made slow but real progress over the years. It has been countered by prejudice and misinformation about what television would do, by fear of the medium, of what we are and of the face that we present to the world. Those arguments were always irrelevant, but the kind of coverage that I propose—the methods that have been used so successfully in Canada and the United States — would make them completely irrelevant. The country would see us for what we are. If we are afraid of what we are and do not like what we do, we should not be here and should not be doing it.

In conclusion— I am watching your floor manager signals, Mr. Speaker—we should seize this opportunity because we are answerable to the people. We are elected by and serve them. We have no right to exclude them from our deliberations and to deny their legitimate interest in what happens in the Chamber when television, and the public support and involvement that it brings, would strengthen the Chamber against the executive. Television will come. We should seize the opportunity to speed the day.

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 164, Noes 159.

Division No. 57][3.45 pm
Ancram, MichaelBrown, Hugh D. (Provan)
Ashby, DavidBruce, Malcolm
Ashdown, PaddyBuck, Sir Antony
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)Burt, Alistair
Beckett, Mrs MargaretButterfill, John
Beith, A. J.Canavan, Dennis
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh)Cartwright, John
Bermingham, GeraldClarke, Thomas
Best, KeithClay, Robert
Bevan, David GilroyCoombs, Simon
Bottomley, PeterCorbyn, Jeremy
Brandon-Bravo, MartinCormack, Patrick
Bray, Dr JeremyCraigen, J. M.
Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E)Cranborne, Viscount
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l)Maclennan, Robert
Deakins, EricMcNamara, Kevin
Dewar, DonaldMcQuarrie, Albert
Dickens, GeoffreyMadden, Max
Dobson, FrankMaples, John
Dorrell, StephenMarek, Dr John
Douglas, DickMarshall, David (Shettleston)
Dover, DenshoreMawhinney, Dr Brian
Dubs, AlfredMaxton, John
du Cann, Rt Hon EdwardMeacher, Michael
Dykes, HughMeadowcroft, Michael
Eadie, AlexMeyer, Sir Anthony
Eastham, KenMikardo, Ian
Fatchett, DerekMiller, Hal (B'grove)
Fenner, Mrs PeggyMitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn)Moynihan, Hon C.
Fisher, MarkNellist, David
Flannery, MartinNewton, Tony
Fookes, Miss JanetO'Neill, Martin
Foot, Rt Hon MichaelOttaway, Richard
Foster, DerekParry, Robert
Foulkes, GeorgePendry, Tom
Fraser, Peter (Angus East)Penhaligon, David
Garel-Jones, TristanPike, Peter
Godman, Dr NormanPowell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Gould, BryanRadice, Giles
Greenway, HarryRaison, Rt Hon Timothy
Ground, PatrickRandall, Stuart
Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)Rathbone, Tim
Hanley, JeremyRhodes James, Robert
Harvey, RobertRhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Haselhurst, AlanRichardson, Ms Jo
Hattersley, Rt Hon RoyRoberts, Allan (Bootle)
Hayhoe, BarneyRobinson, G. (Coventry NW)
Haynes, FrankRoss, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Hayward, RobertRost, Peter
Healey, Rt Hon DenisRowlands, Ted
Heathcoat-Amory, DavidSheerman, Barry
Heffer, Eric S.Sheldon, Rt Hon R.
Hickmet, RichardSims, Roger
Hind, KennethSkinner, Dennis
Hirst, MichaelSmith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'kl'ds E)
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall)Soley, Clive
Hooson, TomSteel, Rt Hon David
Howard, MichaelStern, Michael
Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath)Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Hoyle, DouglasStewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)Strang, Gavin
Hume, JohnStraw, Jack
Johnson-Smith, Sir GeoffreyTemple-Morris, Peter
Johnston, RussellThompson, J. (Wansbeck)
Jones, Robert (W Herts)Thorne, Stan (Preston)
Key, RobertTownsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
King, Roger (B'ham N'field)Wainwright, R.
Kinnock, Rt Hon NeilWallace, James
Knowles, MichaelWard, John
Lawler, GeoffreyWareing, Robert
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)Watson, John
Lester, JimWhitfield, John
Lewis, Terence (Worsley)Wiggin, Jerry
Litherland, RobertWigley, Dafydd
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)Williams, Rt Hon A.
Loyden, EdwardWrigglesworth, Ian
McCrindle, RobertYoung, David (Bolton SE)
McDonald, Dr Oonagh
McKay, Allen (Penistone)Tellers for the Ayes:
McKelvey, WilliamMr. John Home Robertson and Mr. Jonathan Aitken.
Mackenzie, Rt Hon Gregor
Adley, RobertBerry, Sir Anthony
Alison, Rt Hon MichaelBiggs-Davison, Sir John
Atkins, Robert (South Ribble)Boscawen, Hon Robert
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset)Bowden, A. (Brighton K'to'n)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)Braine, Sir Bernard
Batiste, SpencerBright, Graham
Bennett, Sir Frederic (T'bay)Brinton, Tim
Benyon, WilliamBrown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes)
Brown, R. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne N)Lord, Michael
Bruinvels, PeterMcCartney, Hugh
Budgen, NickMcCurley, Mrs Anna
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)Macfarlane, Neil
Chapman, SydneyMacGregor, John
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute)
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.)Maclean, David John.
Coleman, DonaldMcNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury)
Concannon, Rt Hon J. D.McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st)
Conlan, BernardMcWilliam, John
Conway, DerekMajor, John
Couchman, JamesMalins, Humfrey
Cowans, HarryMalone, Gerald
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli)Marland, Paul
Dicks, T.Marlow, Antony
Dixon, DonaldMason, Rt Hon Roy
Dormand, JackMather, Carol
Duffy, A. E. P.Maude, Francis
Edwards, R, (W'hampt'n SE)Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Emery, Sir PeterMerchant, Piers
Evans, John (St. Helens N)Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)
Ewing, HarryMills, Iain (Meriden)
Eyre, ReginaldMills, Sir Peter (West Devon)
Fairbairn, NicholasMolyneaux, Rt Hon James
Forrester, JohnMonro, Sir Hector
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)Montgomery, Fergus
Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim)Morris, Rt Hon A. (W shawe)
Forth, EricMorrison, Hon P. (Chester)
Fox, MarcusNicholls, Patrick
Freeman, RogerOnslow, Cranley
Fry, PeterPatchett, Terry
Gale, RogerPavitt, Laurie
Galley, RoyPeacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr JohnPollock, Alexander
Gourlay, HarryPowell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)
Gower, Sir RaymondPowell, William (Corby)
Grant, Sir AnthonyPowley, John
Griffiths, E. (B'y St Edm'ds)Prentice, Rt Hon Reg
Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)Proctor, K. Harvey
Grist, IanRaffan, Keith
Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)Roe, Mrs Marion
Hamilton, James (M'well N)Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Hannam, JohnShore, Rt Hon Peter
Hargreaves, KennethSkeet, T. H. H.
Harris, DavidSpeed, Keith
Harrison, Rt Hon WalterSpence, John
Hawksley, WarrenSpicer, Jim (W Dorset)
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.Steen, Anthony
Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Holt, RichardStewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)
Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)Stokes, John
Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk)Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Hughes, Mark (Durham)Terlezki, Stefan
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Hughes, Roy (Newport East)Thorne, Neil (IIford S)
Hunter, AndrewThurnham, Peter
Irving, CharlesTinn, James
Jessel, TobyTracey, Richard
John, BrynmorWakeham, Rt Hon John
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)Walden, George
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)Walker, Bill (T'side N)
Kershaw, Sir AnthonyWaller, Gary
King, Rt Hon TomWarren, Kenneth
Knight, Gregory (Derby N)Wheeler, John
Knight, Mrs Jill (Edgbaston)Winterton, Nicholas
Lamond, JamesWood, Timothy
Lang, IanWoodall, Alec
Leighton, Ronald
Lennox-Boyd, Hon MarkTellers for the Noes:
Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)Mr. John Browne and Mr. Kenneth Carlisle.
Lilley, Peter
Lofthouse, Geoffrey

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Austin Mitchell, Mr. Jack Ashley, Mr. A. J. Beith, Mr. Tom Clarke, Mr. Edward du Cann, Sir Ian Gilmour, Mr. George Foulkes, Mr. Roy Hattersley, Mr. Roy Jenkins, Sir Geoffrey Johnson-Smith and Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas.