Austin Mitchell – 1985 Speech on the Televising of the Commons

Below is the text of the speech made by Austin Mitchell, the then Labour MP for Great Grimsby, in the House of Commons on 20 November 1985.

The basic reason why the House should be televised is to bridge the gulf between us and the people. After all, we are the people’s Parliament. We are not a closed debating society. We are the representatives of the people. We are not speaking for ourselves. We are discussing the issues that matter to the people and making decisions that affect their lives. Therefore, we should be available to the people on the medium from which they now get the bulk of their information about news and current affairs. Lament it how some will, that is the fact. If we are not on that medium, we relegate ourselves to a backwater that is irrelevant to the people and their lives.

Arcane abstractions have been dredged up from the 18th century via South Down, but we are not a ​ 19th-century debating Chamber. We are not influencing and persuading each other. We cannot control the Executive, because we cannot bring it down. We have a system of government by party in which the people choose the Executive, and the people alone can bring it down. In that situation, the House of Commons is the open part of the system, where decisions become public for debate. It is the forum of the nation where the issues are discussed. It is the stage for the battle of ideas where the case for and against what the Government are doing is put before the people. All that is done to inform and educate the people. Yet what a farce it is if we do not reach the people.

The popular papers do not report us. The qualities give bald summaries for a small readership. The radio, which is a minority channel, carries noisy extracts of our debates, but television, the only genuine mass medium, carries only sound radio with still pictures. We are the weaker for that. We can be effective and reflect the public’s concerns only if we have firm roots outside. We should be involved in a two-way communication process with the people outside, because it is the people who are the root of our power.

All the arguments against televising Parliament have one common characteristic—they are all defensive. There is a strange coalition of opponents. We have hon. Members who feel that their inadequacies in performance, or the lack of it, should not be exposed to the gaze of the public. We have hon. Members who feel that the House is so awful—

Mr. Faulds

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Mitchell

No.

Mr. Faulds

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Mitchell

No, I am sorry, I am not giving way.

Mr. Faulds

He is frightened of the argument.

Mr. Mitchell

Some hon. Members feel that the House is so awful that the public should not be allowed to see it. Some feel that the public are so stupid and ill-informed that they will not understand what we are doing. Over the past few days journalists, men of the written word, have been bitterly hostile to television coverage, which will cut down their importance, their job as self-appointed middle men mediating between us and the people at inordinate profit to themselves. Both the Charles Moore article in the Daily Telegraph and the Hugo Young article in yesterday’s edition of The Guardian showed contempt for politicians and television.

In the Chamber, two fears are paramount. There is fear of change in the Chamber and fear of television itself. To those who fear change in the Chamber, I say that, with television, the lighting will be somewhat brighter than it is now, but the House can be unconscionably dim at times, can it not? If we bring in the cameras straight away, they will be operator cameras. If we wait until the start of the next Session in November, the broadcasting organisations will be able to supply wall-mounted remote-control cameras that are unobtrusive.

It is up to us in the House to define the terms of the coverage. We could go for the Canadian style of coverage or that in the United States House of Representatives, where the Speaker is shown in mid-shot and there are no cutaways, no shots of disturbances, no shots of people rushing like lemmings to jump from the Gallery almost as fast as nationalised industries have been flogged off—no ​ sensationalism, just straight, neutral coverage. We could go for the same coverage as the House of Lords, which allows cutaways. The decision is for the Select Committee and the House, and it has to be taken predominantly in the light of what the House wants rather than what the television people want. That is the important thing. The decision is ours. When we are televised, what will come over is what is effective now—serious, straightforward Chamber debate.

Mr. Faulds

How gullible.

Mr. Mitchell

The speech of the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), unlike the interventions of my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds)—

Mr. Faulds rose—

Mr. Mitchell

That speech would come over—

Mr. Faulds

If my hon. Friend has the guts to give way—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order.

Mr. Mitchell

I shall not give way.

The speech by the right hon. Member for South Down would come over extremely well on television, wrong as it was, because it was compelling argument. That is the truth of the matter. It is not the histrionics of the demagogue or the subtle lying of the studio, but straightforward Chamber debating that comes over effectively. It is striking from the Hansard Society report on the House of Lords coverage how little the House of Lords has changed because of the advent of television.

There are those who fear change. We have conducted ourselves like a closed debating society for many years. What good has that done us? What respect is there for the House of Commons? The public are increasingly alienated from parties, politicians and politics. They do not respect or hold hon. Members and the House of Commons in esteem. The public are not in awe—they are bored and alienated and believe that we are remote. We must reach out to the public, and we can do so through the media from which they get their news and information.

In this closed debating society, for much of the day the Chamber is dying on its feet, which may be especially true when I am speaking. The Chamber is badly attended and uninspiring for large chunks of the day. The only way to remedy that is to make it once again the focus of attention by putting it on television and making it available to the people. Through television we have the chance to make the Chamber important and a focus of interest and concern once again. We should seize that chance.

I never understand the fear of television—a fear that has been so manipulated tonight.

Mr. Wilson rose—

Mr. Mitchell

Television is essentially a mirror of reality. It has faults, but reality has faults. If we object to reality—

Mr. Wilson

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you enlighten me? Under which code of practice are we debating? Is it the pre-television one, when one gives way to interventions, or is this the post-television age when we do not?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is not a matter for me.

Mr. Mitchell

The interventions have been so repetitious and so absurd—

Mr. Faulds

My hon. Friend has not listened to them. I am so grateful that he has at last been overcome by embarrassment and is prepared to listen to a moment of contradiction of some of his arguments. I rose first—I made many attempts later—to make the point that my hon. Friend seemed to be basing his attack on some of us on the fact that we were defensive about television. I happen to like the medium. I am rather good on television. If, unfortunately, the cameras come in, I will probably benefit from it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that this is an intervention, not a speech.

Mr. Faulds

What I wanted to say to my hon. Friend when he refused to let me intervene is that we are not defensive about proper television coverage of this House. If there were a continuous programme, I would vote for it. What we are defensive about is the selective presentation that the media boys will give to televising the Chamber.

Mr. Mitchell

I thank my hon. Friend for making it clear why I did not give way in the first place. I did not want his speech to punctuate mine.

The critics of television are getting it both ways. They say that the House is too dull to be covered, and that it will be reduced to a form of entertainment. They say that people will not be interested, but also that 10 million people will be watching for every flaw, every absentee Member and every aberration. If they are influenced by those fears, they can only suck it and see. The experiment gives us a chance to see whether the fears are realised. That is what an experiment is about.

Mr. Faulds

Jump off the cliff and see where you land.

Mr. Mitchell

It is no use listening to abstract fears of people who have not seen the proceedings on television and who are defensive about it. The best way is to watch the experiment and see how it works.

The critics of television must not forget that we already appear on television and in the least appetising, most inadequate way—a voice-over radio broadcast with irrelevant pictures. Why should not the reality be shown through the television cameras? We should be clear that the coverage will be different for each level and channel. Television will have several forms of coverage of our proceedings. Eventually, we shall have full-time coverage on cable. Cable is coming. In Canada, there is full-time coverage by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and the United States has such coverage on C-Span. They attract small but devoted, interested and involved audiences.

There will occasionally be full debates on important issues, as there have been on the radio. There will be daily and weekly edited summaries of what has happened in Parliament on BBC 2 and on Channel 4. There will be extracts of speeches and statements in Parliament in the news and in the current affairs programmes. There will also be regional coverage by the regional companies of regional matters and Members of Parliament.

Each channel will make its own decisions and choices. There is enough evidence that, within that range of choice, everyone will see something.

However, those who wish to see more and to pay continual attention to the House will ​ be able to follow their interests, and why not? It could be a long debate, or simply a reminder on the news that Parliament exists. In contrast to the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), some of my constituents have telephoned me in Grimsby during the week and, when told that I am in London, respond by saying, “What is he doing in London?” There is an amazing ignorance of Parliament.

The fear of television is unrealistic. The debate has moved on more recently to an argument about which party will have the advantage, and whether Front-Bench or Back-Bench Members will benefit. The Prime Minister is reported to have changed her mind yet again. I hope that she is not, as The Guardian put it, “uncharacteristically dithering”. She has everything to gain by appearing on television, as does the leader of the Labour party. Both will come over brilliantly, because ability comes over well on television. That is what people will be looking for. If ability comes over well, it is not a matter of which party wins or loses. The whole Chamber will gain, because we shall have shown that we are doing a serious job. We shall allow the public to judge our ability, performance and how we get on in this testing ground. We shall not leave that judgment to the insiders—to the sketch writers who relay their views in their theatre criticisms, peddling small doses of what happens here, at inordinate profit to themselves.

The experiment in the House of Lords has shown how successful television can be. It was not naturally the most exciting television, it was not naturally the most propitious experiment that could have been conducted, but at the end of the experiment, 81 per cent. of a representative sample of 200 peers wished the experiment to continue. In a sample of the public interviewed by BBC audience research, 72 per cent. believed that television gave them a good insight into what was happening in the House of Lords. Moreover, audiences were good. There was an average reach of 1·5 million for the afternoon and of 300,000 for the late night programmes.

Indeed, when the ITN programme “Their Lordships’ House” went out late at night, the audiences were one fifth higher than they had been for the programmes in the preceding four weeks. That is the test. The consumers liked it, and those who participated liked it and wished it to continue. That 19th century institution down the corridor has shown us the way into the 20th century. It is a success story that should give us the confidence to take the plunge. If we do not, that House will continue to get the prestige of being on television.

The House of Commons should go ahead on a similar basis. We could do so by voting today in principle and then allowing the Select Committee to agree the coverage that will be most acceptable to hon. Members. Then we should put it to the test of an experiment, preferably as long as possible and as late as possible, so that we can install remote-controlled, wall-mounted cameras, which are less obtrusive, and decide the matter on the basis of reality, not the hypothetical fears that have been projected today by those who are scared of television.

Only when we have seen how it works will we have to take a final decision, and power will remain in our hands throughout that process. I hope we will decide not on fears, either of ourselves or of television, or on the kind of quibbles that have been paraded before us, but on what ​ is in the best interests of the people who have a growing desire to know, to see, and to be involved. All the evidence is that people want the House to be televised.

Secondly, we must decide on the basis of what is in the best interests of this House. We are the last major Chamber to allow television in, and it is television alone that will enable us to do our real job, which is to put arguments before the people. We have dithered, delayed, hesitated and hovered. Enough is enough, and it is well past the time to reach out and talk directly to the people.

We can do it through this experiment, and if we go ahead we shall be moving into the 20th century instead of cowering in fear of the world outside, pretending we are still living in the 19th century, doing a job that is dead in a Chamber that is half alive.