OPINION: We must not degrade the Commons on TV

The House of Commons, we are told, is going to be televised as if it were any old event. The broadcasters are to be allowed to cut to the reactions of MPs instead of being confined to close-up shots of speakers and a wide view of the chamber. They are even to be permitted to screen the drama of demonstrations in the Mother of Parliaments.

The House of Commons, we are told, is going to be televised as if

it were any old event. The broadcasters are to be allowed to cut to the

reactions of MPs instead of being confined to close-up shots of speakers

and a wide view of the chamber. They are even to be permitted to screen

the drama of demonstrations in the Mother of Parliaments.



Is this a good thing? As one who, in the 1980s, advised John Wakeham,

then Leader of the House, in recommending the rules for TV, I have my

doubts. I never shared Margaret Thatcher’s reluctance to admit the

cameras. Wherever she went in the world, she was asked: ’How on earth do

you cope in that bear garden?’ Radio broadcasts of Parliament left a

worldwide impression of a howling mob. I thought it would be far better

to put the noise in perspective by adding a new dimension - vision - to

its reportage.



In any case, I could hardly argue that television should be excluded

when the press and radio were already there. And, as the Prime

Minister’s press secretary, I had no doubt that televising the House

would be a bonus for one as much in command of the Commons and her

subjects as she invariably was.



But many MPs a decade ago were concerned about the way in which the

house would be televised. Many of them regarded TV as primarily an

entertainment medium and were in no mood to let the broadcasters make a

soap opera of the House’s proceedings. They wished to preserve its

dignity and standing as the source of law and where Government is held

to account. So Lord Wakeham, as he now is, gradually worked his way

towards the consensus over coverage which has so far held across three

Parliaments.



I don’t pretend that ministers or TV folk are happy. The position of the

cameras meant that, if front bench spokesmen spoke from notes, viewers

tended to see only the tops of their heads - as Tim Yeo, Shadow

Agriculture spokesman, showed last week. And the broadcasters felt

robbed when they could not get a close-up of Mrs Thatcher as Sir

Geoffrey Howe stabbed her in the back with his resignation speech or,

more recently, of the Earl of Burford dancing on the Woolsack in protest

at the ’treason’ of abolishing hereditary peers. I must also confess

that I do not think regular pictures of acres of unoccupied green

leather in the chamber do much for politicians.



But, however debased it has become, the Commons is still the fount of

our democracy.



It was never intended to be the plaything of television. It is there to

be reported, not corrupted. And it most certainly should not encourage -

as television does - exhibitionist demonstrators. The present move to

make the House more viewer-friendly could be a reform too far.



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