Bob Wareing – 1985 Speech on the Televising of the Commons

Below is the text of the speech made by Bob Wareing, the then Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby, in the House of Commons on 20 November 1985.

More than 200 years ago, in 1783, the House of Commons expressed its concern, by a resolution, at what it called the “great presumption” of journalists in reporting its proceedings. It went on to declare that it was

“a high indignity and notorious breach of privilege to print accounts of debates”.

I heard echoes of that resolution in the speech of the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell). In those days, it was even argued that printing reports of debates in the House would tend to make Members of Parliament accountable for what they said inside the House to people outside it. When I was elected in June 1983, that was my understanding, that I was accountable to the people outside the House.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman) talked about representative government and the fact that we make ourselves accountable by going to our constituencies. I believe that we should make ourselves accountable also by ensuring that our constituents know what we are doing and saying inside the House, and what work we are undertaking. That is not being done at present. The press, as has already been said, publishes little of what is done in this House. To a large extent, that is because, although television has become the medium of entertainment in this country, the so-called popular press has become a type of “comic cuts” medium.

The House of Commons is harmed by not submitting itself to the most popular, modern and powerful medium of mass communication. If we are interested in allowing the outside world to know what is happening in the Chamber, we should be prepared to allow it to see on television what is happening.

We are living in the television age. Youngsters are brought up on television almost from birth. In many cases, people want entertainment. However, I argue with hon. Members when they say that people switch on the television set for entertainment only. Does anyone suggest that television was not performing in the public interest when a few months ago it showed the desperate plight of the people of Ethiopia? What a response that evoked from the British people. Do right hon. and hon. Members not believe that televising the proceedings of the House would evoke a response from the British people, and that they would not start to ask questions about what happens in Parliament, what our procedures are, why we do this, why we do that and why we should not do it another way?

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington fears that television may bring about changes and that we may suddenly modernise our proceedings. Many hon. Members will say, “Not before time.” The British people might realise that we live and work in an antiquated building and that our procedures are likewise antiquated.

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many hon. Members would accept television if it were on the Canadian model and the whole proceedings were televised? What representation of our work in this place, including work on Select and Standing Committees, does he imagine can be shown in approximately 12 minutes’ television coverage?

Mr. Wareing

I am glad that the hon. Lady made that point. Like her, and like the predecessor of my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot), Aneurin Bevan, I believe that there should be a special channel for the House of Commons.

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

We are not to have that.

Mr. Wareing

No, but there is no reason why we should not work towards it in the period leading up to cable television. All that is being asked for in the motion is that we set up a Select Committee. We have never had a Select Committee to study the detail and problems of televising this Chamber.

If we reject the motion, that will be perceived by the nation as Members of Parliament working in the same way and with the same aims for Parliament as our predecessors did in the 17th and 18th centuries when they barred the public from their representatives in Parliament.

The Kilbrandon report stated:

“People have tended to become disillusioned with Government—the general disenchantment may be largely attributable to a failure of communications.”

I believe that to be the case. People have become alienated from Parliament. Parliament is modelled for them by what the so-called cynical popular press has manufactured. People who report in the Daily Telegraph, Private Eye and The Sun are there to tell the public not to be interested in politics. They are almost part of a press conspiracy to ensure that the people do not know what is happening in the House.

When people get into the habit of switching on their television sets to watch the House of Commons, they will take an increasing interest in debates. They will want to know where Members are if they are not in the Chamber. The televising of the House of Commons will be an educative process. It will enable people to understand what happens in Parliament. They have already seen the debates in another place, and more and more people understand what happens there. I want them to be able to see what we are doing here and in Select Committees.

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

The cameras will not be in the Select Committees.

Mr. Wareing

We do not know. The hon. Lady is intervening from a sedentary position. How delightful it would be to have that on television. The hon. Lady could make points to her constituents, but she does not want them to watch her on television. It will be a start if a Select Committee considers the matter in detail.

Time after time important statements on Government policy are made from the Dispatch Box. The only opportunity that the public have of seeing Ministers questioned on those statements is when Ministers are ​ called to the television studios to be interviewed by Sir Robin Day, Alastair Burnet or Brian Walden. No matter how professional those interviewers may be at their art, none of them is a democratically elected representative of the people. My constituents and the constituents of every right hon. and hon. Member have a right to see their Members putting questions to Ministers.

A great advantage of the House of Commons is that the grievances of individuals may be aired in the Chamber. Those grievances may reflect problems encountered by many others. We are preventing information from being put across to the electorate when we say that they cannot see those grievances being aired in the House of Commons, Ministers answering questions on statements or debates on major issues which affect their daily lives.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight)—I am sorry she is not here at the moment—asked an important question about the cost of televising the House. The cost could be regained to a considerable extent by piping the proceedings live for a subscription to universities, clubs, newspaper offices and anybody who wants to see the House of Commons in action. The subscription would more than pay for a television Hansard. In time, it would pay for cable television channels.

It is wrong for the broadcasting and television media to determine which politicians appear before the camera. A few weeks ago I was walking along a corridor in the building when I saw a gentleman walking towards me. I thought, “I recognise him. I am sure that I have seen him on television.” When he went past, I said to myself, “My God, that was the leader of the Liberal party, and I do not often see him in the House.”

Let us modernise our proceedings by passing the motion to inquire and investigate. The House of Commons will be a more prestigious institution in our democratic society and will no longer be alienated from the people. It will modernise itself for its benefit and that of the British people.