Geoffrey Dickens – 1985 Speech on the Televising of the Commons

Below is the text of the speech made by Geoffrey Dickens, the then Conservative MP for Littleborough and Saddleworth, in the House of Commons on 20 November 1985.

All hon. Members should remind themselves of the salient difference between this Chamber and the other place. We will all agree that the other place does not have to face the ballot box, whereas we do. Whether we freely admit it or not, we are in the self-promotion business. We want our constituents to be pleased with us, and to know that we are working exceptionally hard on their behalf—as, indeed, the majority of hon. Members do. We must get that message across. Therefore, if the House is televised, the temptation to be present in the Chamber rather than elsewhere will be irresistible.

Hon. Members may be surprised to hear that, at any one time, about 50 meetings are taking place within the Parliament buildings. They are held in Committee Rooms in the main building, in the rooms off Westminister Hall, in the Terrace rooms, and in conference rooms in the Norman Shaw south and north buildings. Those rooms are booked many times over, and sometimes on the hour, each hour. There are many demands on hon. Members—for example, to serve on Standing Committees and Select Committees, to attend all-party groups and one’s own party groups, and to meet constituents and delegations of all sorts of groups. There is no end to the number of groups that wish to meet parties of hon. Members.

Sometimes regional Members must get together to meet various visitors to the House who have asked to see them. What on earth would happen if, for example, every hon. Member were doing his stuff and working hard in those various meetings, and then looked at the clock and said, “By George, we’re on television.” Suddenly rooms all over the building would empty as hon. Members scurried into the Chamber.

This is an important debate, but on par, no more than about 40 people have been present all day. That includes the Speaker, the Clerk, the Serjeant at Arms and the Doorkeeper. With television cameras, it would be a different matter altogether. Let us set the scene. If the Leader of the House kindly made room for something like the Miniaturisation of Schrompling Pin Bill 1985, the Benches would be full of hon. Members, probably not one of whom would know what schrompling pin was. I shall send up the spelling to Hansard later. Nevertheless, the Chamber would be full because hon. Members would know that many of the disabled, the elderly, and the unemployed would be at home watching television, ​ because they are television addicts and television is their great pleasure in life, and would be looking for them and asking “Where are they?”. All the time hon. Members will have to explain that we have many matters to attend to, besides sitting in the Chamber.

Earlier in the debate, many hon. Members were nasty to the gentlemen and ladies of the press, and suggested that the press selection was narrow, and that, although they made wonderful speeches, not a word appeared in the newspapers the following day. We have short memories. The work that we do in the Chamber is only one small part of what we must do. Yes, this is where the laws of the nation are made, but all hon. Members know that, whatever wonderful speeches we make today, at 10 o’clock when it is time to vote, other hon. Members will scurry to the Chamber from all over the building, most of whom will not have heard a word of our compelling arguments. They will look for friendly faces and troop through the Lobby that they think suits them best.

What we say does not change a thing. In a way, the Chamber is a bit of theatre and we are the players, but at the same time we seek to do a responsible job.
Hon. Members cannot say that the press report only what we say in the Chamber. Remember this: when hon. Members table questions, the press approach them in the Lobbies, ask what is behind the question, request a quote on it and ask us to elaborate on it. We are also reported in that and many other ways. The press reports not only what is said in the Chamber but what is said at press conferences. Many of the press troop around the world with political figures, and work hard. It is unfair to say that they are extremely selective.

To be honest, one does not hear many brilliant speeches. We do not have in the Chamber today the great politicians of years ago. They did not have radio, television, or wonderful newspaper coverage. Newspapers came only with the advent of the railway system, when W H. Smith and others put newsagents at all the stations to distribute the news. That was the birth of the newspaper industry. Nevertheless, the great men of the past made their case heard, even without the facilities of today.

Today hon. Members have the Official Report, which anyone can purchase, radio coverage and good press coverage. Moreover, we ourselves are not slow in notifying the press of what we are up to. We are in the self-promotion game because the ballot box is behind us. The people in the other place do not have that constraint and, therefore, do not need to scurry to be present when the cameras are filming.

We have also been unfair to the British Broadcasting Corporation and, perhaps, the Independent Radio Network News. While I am speaking, across the road the tapes are running in the news rooms and teams of people are listening to our comments. Sometimes they are pleased, and sometimes they think that our debates are an absolute bore and take no interest. They are doing their jobs and working hard, but they can put only so much about a debate on the air.

The main interest is in the legislation that is passed, the main thrust of the debate, and the main opposition to the proposed legislation. But the press also seek to ensure that as many hon. Members as possible are mentioned in the time allocated. We should not grumble. Most of us do fairly well, and if we do not, we have not much to say and ​ we are not worth recording. We cannot have it both ways. We need the help of the press, and we should not be critical.
What would Question Time today have been like if we had had television cameras? It would have been like a greenhouse. We would have had so much hot air and so many plants—the plants being the planted questions that we hear all the time—that it would have been like filming a greenhouse.

I have changed my mind.—[HON. MEMBERS: “Which way?”] You know me well, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I always keep you in suspense. People have been kind to me and said, “Geoffrey, it is made for you. Get in there.” I shall resist the temptation. I shall vote against having television cameras in the Chamber, even if they might suit my style nicely. I believe sincerely that it would be wrong to televise Parliament. Most of my constituents who hear the radio broadcasts of our proceedings think that we are a disgrace. I think that I am doing them a tremendous favour tonight by voting against television cameras in the Chamber.