Gerald Howarth – 1985 Speech on the Televising of the Commons

Below is the text of the speech made by Gerald Howarth, the then Conservative MP for Cannock and Burntwood, in the House of Commons on 20 November 1985.

Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Sir J. Page), I did not take a bath last week or this week for the purpose of conversion. I took a bath to listen to “Yesterday in Parliament” to find out what had gone on while I was doing my correspondence.

I shall vote with great confidence against the motion. Although I have been privileged to be a Member of the House for only two and half years, I believe that the intrusion of the cameras would be a grave mistake and would destroy the essential character of this place. I believe that it would turn the House into a television studio and theatre. The microphones do not intrude, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) so ably explained, the cameras would intrude a great deal.

We should no longer be looking to you, Mr. Speaker, and we should no longer be looking to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer). Some strange alliances have been formed today. I agree with everything that the hon. Member for Walton has said, which must embarrass the hon. Gentleman as much as it embarrassed my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) to agree with all that was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath). The television cameras would intrude; the intimacy of the Chamber would be lost. It would become a studio or theatre. The press would interpret our proceedings. As the hon. Member for Walton so ably explained, it would choose the little nuggets that it wanted to televise.

This motion should be rejected out of hand. We should preserve the traditions of this great House. Those who want to hear our proceedings should listen to them on the radio. Better still, they should come and see us in action.

John Page – 1985 Speech on the Televising of the Commons

Below is the text of the speech made by John Page, the  then Conservative MP for Harrow West, in the House of Commons on 20 November 1985.

My interest in voting today is to ensure that greater power and authority is given to this Chamber. I had a kind of road to Damascus conversion in the bath last Thursday morning and decided very determinedly that I would vote for the motion. This is a debating Chamber, however, and in a free vote we can be swayed by the speeches that we have heard.

As I listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) in support of the motion all my confidence dissipated but, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) has said, one should not be ashamed to change one’s mind, however frequently the pendulum swings. Soon aftewards, however, my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) spoke against the motion and all his arguments persuaded me that it would be quite wrong to vote against it. My hon. Friend said that instead of spending his afternoons in Committee, talking to disabled constituents or dealing with his correspondence, he would have to waste his time in the Chamber, and that poniard went straight into the wound.

In the light of that final revelation, I have decided to vote in favour of letting the cameras in—not only because I bought a carnation this morning at enormous expense in the belief that the cameras would already be here today, but because I believe that the televising of our proceedings, warts and all, will bring back greater power to our debates here, which is where it ought to be.

Nigel Spearing – 1985 Speech on the Televising of the Commons

Below is the text of the speech made by Nigel Spearing, the then Labour MP for Newham South, in the House of Commons on 20 November 1985.

There is one thing on which all right hon. and hon. Members agree—that the gap between the House of Commons and the public is apparently increasing. Those who want us to vote in favour of the motion maintain that television will fill that gap.

If hon. Members vote in favour of the motion, they may increase the feelings of frustration and powerlessness among their constituents. Politicians speak to their ​ constituents daily in their drawing rooms and kitchens and the public cannot get back at them. If the public were able to see the proceedings in the Chamber but could not come here to make a speech, the division between hon. Members and constituents could conceivably be greater.

Hon. Members can take many steps to close such a division. They could make sure that Hansard appears in every public library and in the libraries of every secondary school. I do not know whether that would be possible to implement at present. Years ago the weekly Hansard could be purchased from bookstalls, but today the daily part costs £2·50. I believe that Hansard should be available throughout the country at wholesale prices.

Many hon. Members have said in the debate that the function of a Member of Parliament is not restricted to the Chamber. Indeed, the majority of our time is spent outside the Chamber, however vital our function in the Chamber may be.
When the House was asked to support sound radio in the Chamber, we were told that the broadcasts would cover Select Committees. The media told us that they would give coverage to powerful Select Committees calling the Government to account. In fact, the only coverage of Select Committees is a BBC programme broadcast at 11 pm on Sunday on VHF only.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) that the Chamber is the hub of Parliament. The Chamber operates on motions, questions, debate and decision. There is also pontification, promotion of causes and probing of Government. Above all, there are good speeches of persuasion. Those are often the most effective speeches in the Chamber, but if speeches of persuasion are distorted by the media to create news value—and the media will be tempted to do that—distortion of our proceedings will be increased.

The trumpet soloists will be in the ascendancy if the motion is passed. I ask hon. Members to consider what a Beethoven symphony might sound like if it was played only from the score for the brass and timpani sections. That is not an unlikely analogy if, through the exigencies of the edited extracts, that is the view that the public are given of the Chamber.

There would inevitably be pressures on hon. Members and on how parliamentary business is carried out. If we wish the House to become a permanent, national, political television studio in an attempt to fill the gap between the public and Parliament which hon. Members have identified, we must adapt our priorities, proceedings and practices to suit the requirements and disciplines of the media. That is not the function of Members of Parliament.

In the Chamber, it is our duty to ensure the efficient dispatch of public business. That should not be done in secret. It should certainly be recorded. It may be broadcast in sound and it is published the very next day in Hansard.
Hon. Members must be publicly accountable—motivated by party passions and principles or those of our own deep convictions—but if the practices and proceedings which are the ball bearings of democratic government are in any way geared to requirements other than the proper dispatch of public business, democratic parliamentary procedures will be threatened. We shall be performing those functions to satisfy the requirements of one medium whereby we are accountable, rather than the requirements of parliamentary business.

Parliamentary democracy is very tenuous. Its gossamer threads are too fine to be subjected to the risks that those who support the motion would have us take. The House should seek other, more realistic measures to close the gap and defeat the motion tonight.

Anthony Beaumont-Dark – 1985 Speech on the Televising of the Commons

Below is the text of the speech made by Anthony Beaumont-Dark, the then Conservative MP for Birmingham Selly Oak, in the House of Commons on 20 November 1985.

I do not wish to repeat the many arguments already made, but it is interesting to note that, before this debate started, we were told that, like death and taxes, it was absolutely inevitable that the House would vote in favour of having television. Those hon. Members who are most experienced in the knowledge of the media spoke about the effects that the media can have. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Brinton) were honest enough to say that, if they were outside this House, they would press for televising, but because they are Members they do not believe it would benefit this House.

​ In the great days, the high days and the tragic days of the war when Winston Churchill came back from wherever he had been, whether it was America or the Middle East, he said, “Before I do anything I must report to the House”. He said that in his memoirs. The Prime Minister of that day, as at any time, regarded reporting to the House as his most important task. We have been pushed by the media—we should be honest enough to admit it—into reading nearly everything about policy, irrespective of which party is in power, in the press, and sometimes weeks, if not months, before a statement is made here with all gravity. It is this House that must decide ultimately.

It has been argued, I think rather pathetically, that we cannot get the problems of our areas across without television. It seems that yesterday’s debate on the Okehampton bypass would have captured peak time in Devon and Cornwall. That six-hour debate was important for the people in those counties, but how much time would the media have given it? If the television producers wanted to impress on us how good the debate was, we might have got 12 minutes. How much of the work that hon. Members have done for their constituents and their areas would have come over in that time? Precious little.

I have sat through most of the debate. What we decide today is important. The House is not just a talking shop. It is a place where great decisions are meant to be made and debated. I contend that we should not admit the cameras, in spite of my natural shyness of the media. My hon. Friends the Members for Gravesham and for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) are shy of the media. However, nearly all the right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken against the televising of this House have a good relationship with the media. It is sometimes easier to catch the eye of the media than the eye of the occupant of the Chair and we are able to put over our views as we know that, as long as we are being interviewed live, we cannot be misquoted. One of the great things about live interviews is that one is in control. If we make a 20-minute speech here and only seven seconds of it is used in a news clip, that speech can be made to represent 15 views. That will happen. We must not always think of the media being in the hands of the kind, the good and the honest. It is not always so.

Until we have sorted out the problems, the House would be wrong to give in to those who say that television is inevitable. I hope that we shall at least keep control of our House and of our destiny. To say that everybody wants television is to use the argument of tyrants and those who try to push and shove people into doing something that they know that they should not do. We are elected. We can be appointed and disappointed at any time. We do not need the media to push us into anything. We should vote for our conscience and the future of the House. In the end, we, not television and not radio, will answer to the people. We are the elected ones.

Roger Gale – 1985 Speech on the Televising of the Commons

Below is the text of the speech made by Roger Gale, the Conservative MP for North Thanet, in the House of Commons on 20 November 1985.

For reasons that are fairly obvious, Mr. Speaker, I shall be brief. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes) for introducing this subject and for her generosity in agreeing to curtail her remarks at the end of the debate to allow some more of us to speak, although she knew that I at least would speak against her.

The hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) said that he believed that the machinery of television should not be allowed to influence our decisions. I wish to comment as a television producer and director—I believe the only one in the House—on what the machinery will do to the House. It has been suggested that we could use a micro-camera. Those cameras are being developed, but they do not exist. It is suggested that it will be unnecessary to light the Chamber for television. However, for good colour television, the Chamber will have to be lighted.

As an outside broadcast director, I know that we shall need four cameras. If we cannot hang them under the Gallery—at present, we cannot—we shall have to put them at each end of the Chamber. If we do so, we shall obtain extremely odd shots of those sitting on the Front Benches. If we light the Chamber from above, all the shadows will come down—any television lighting director could tell us this—and those sitting on the Front Benches will look extremely odd—[HON. MEMBERS: “They do already.”] It is tremendous, Mr. Speaker; all one needs to do is feed them a line. That would be even more the case if we appeared on television.

There is no doubt that the technical necessity for television will change the Chamber. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Brinton) said, in time, the technological developments may be such that miniaturised cameras may be possible, but at present no automatic remote control camera could respond swiftly enough to an hon. Member intervening in a speech.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

That is just not so.

Mr. Gale

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) has intervened, as he so often does, from a sedentary position. He is wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong again.

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman’s statement is incorrect. Those cameras already exist and will have been purchased by British broadcasters before we start the new Session next November.

Mr. Gale

I will not ask the hon. Gentleman what the response has been to those remote-controlled cameras, because I do not wish him to intervene again. Allow me to tell the Chamber, as a television director, that they do not react swiftly enough to record an intervention from another hon. Member. That is the technicality of it. The Chamber will have to be changed in structure. Holes for cameras will have to be cut in the back, and for colour contrast, lights will have to be put in. It is simply a technical fact that the Chamber will be hot. Hon. Members may choose to accept or reject that, but it is a fact.​

Mr. Holt

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Gale

No, I do not have time.

The only reason advanced for introducing television to the Chamber is that, in some way, it will enhance democracy. How will it do that? All the work of the Chamber will not be transmitted. If we record all the work of the Chamber, edit it and then transmit some of it, that will be phenomenally expensive, because we are talking about many hours of television recording and editing for very little transmission. We have a choice. We either show all of it, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) said earlier, or we transmit some of it. If only some of it is transmitted then, with great respect to the hon. Members who have said otherwise, the editorial control will not be in the hands of this Chamber.

As a producer and director of television, I am aware of the exact processes involved. At the end of all this, will it be worth it? The hon. Member for Great Grimsby quoted some inaccurate figures about the television viewing of the Lords. I will give the correct figures. Three debates were covered live on Channel 4 on 23 June, 20 March and 15 April. The average audience for those programmes was 439,000 and the maximum audience of 747,000 was for the first debate, and it obviously had curiosity value only. We are therefore talking about a maximum viewing figure at any one time of 747,000. Any producer or director faced with those figures at any reasonable time of day—those programmes were transmitted at peak time and broadcast live—would have his programme taken off. The late-night viewing figures went down to virtually nothing at all.

We are talking about destroying the atmosphere of this Chamber and, if we are going to record it all, it will cost £2·5 million a year. That will be to transmit something and there is no evidence that anybody will watch it. Not one of the hon. Members who spoke in this debate has had a letter from anybody saying that he wished to watch it. There will be a minimal audience and no return. If we wish to introduce more democracy to the Chamber, we have the apparatus to do that in front of us. If we genuinely wish to take the British Parliament to the British people, the microphones are here, and we can dedicate a radio channel to do that. There are also microphones hanging in the other places that need to be heard, the Committee Rooms. We have the means for live broadcasts from this House and from the Committee Rooms.

I will be standing with the chairman of the Back-Bench media committee at the entrance to the “No” Lobby trying to persuade hon. Members who have not heard the debate to go into that Lobby, because we both believe that televising of this House would be profoundly bad.

Colin Shepherd – 1985 Speech on the Televising of the Commons

Below is the text of the speech made by Colin Shepherd, the then Conservative MP for Hereford, in the House of Commons on 20 November 1985.

Having listened to the debate from the beginning to the present moment, I am grateful to have the opportunity to add a few words.

It is now five hours since my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House talked about the motion being a leap in the dark. I have listened carefully, but I have not been able to adduce a shred of evidence why that leap in the dark should in any way lead to any light. I am not convinced that anyone who advocates that the leap should be taken knows where it is leading. As was said by the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) in his powerful remarks, we have a duty of stewardship in this institution. It is incorrect to lead off in a direction when that direction is unknown and the consequences are unforeseeable. The debate has not enlightened us in that direction; it is all supposition and emotion.

During the summer I visited Canada. Not unnaturally, I took the opportunity of asking, whenever possible of whoever possible, for views of the broadcasting and televising of Parliament in that country. I visited three provincial Parliaments and spoke to Members of the federal Parliament. What I found in no way supported benign statements about the performance of television in the Canadian Parliament.

The argument that has to be won by those who wish the motion to be passed is that the change is acceptable, quantifiable and manageable. There has been change in the House since broadcasting came in. It is not disputed that the House that is broadcast now is not the House that existed before broadcasting. That has been confirmed by several right hon. and hon. Members during the debate. Anyone who thinks that there has not been change and that there is not a different tempo when the House is being broadcast live has only to watch the point of order specialists leap to their feet when the little light is on in the Box in the corner.

Of late the Canadian Parliament has had occasion to consider its televising of proceedings. The committee charged with doing that produced a substantial report, under the chairmanship of James McGrath. He visited the House last week with a delegation from Canada. I had an opportunity to talk to him. He said that he would not go back, but I caught a certain reluctance in him to face the position that he had reached when he could not see how to get back. His report says:

“The evidence of the past eight years suggests that television has caused only a few changes. For example members now applaud rather than thump their desks to signify approval.”

I gather that the public did not like members thumping their desks, so the members now applaud. Mr. McGrath said that someone then discovered the standing ovation, so now they have standing ovations all the time. The report also says:

“Members also tend to move around the chamber to sit at the desks behind the person speaking. Attempts to counter the impression that a member is talking to an empty House are not really successful. No one is really fooled”—

nevertheless it is done,

“The game of musical chairs simply adds an artificial element that would be unnecessary if there were greater public understanding of the reasons why members are not always in their seats in the House of Commons.”

The Canadian House has had television since 1977. It is remarkable that, after eight years of exposure, not one jot of further understanding has been achieved. So much for the thought that television will lead to the better understanding of this House. More needs to be done to achieve that, but in different ways.

On my visit to Canada I spoke to an Opposition spokesman about the competitive element in securing television time. He said that he made a good point—rather like the points made by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours)—but without success because there was no television coverage. He did the same again—a good point, but no television coverage. The third time he said, “To hell with it. I am going all out for it.” He employed histrionics, shouted, waved his arms in the air and tore at his hair. He said, “I got my coverage coast-to-coast on the news.” The only trouble was that no one knew what he had said, and he did not feel very good about it. What a length to have to go to in order to secure television time. That goes against the reports we have heard about the idealism of the Canadian experience.

While I was there, a fish in a big greasy parcel was thrown on the Prime Minister’s desk—[HON. MEMBERS: “A gift?”] Not a gift, and not very fresh, but it secured the attention of the television. The Member got his coverage. That may have been the practice before the Canadian House had television. That is what is meant when the report states that there has not been much change in the past eight years.

I could not find a member of the public who was anything but indifferent or derogatory about television. I did not speak to 18 million Canadians, but, out of interest, I spoke to people in the street, shops and stores. I visited the Quebec Parliament. The Clerk at the Table, who has just retired after 22 years’ service, when asked for his views on the introduction of television, rolled his eyes to the ceiling, as only a French Canadian can, and said, “Ah, Monsieur”—

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)


Mr. Shepherd

We were speaking in English, because my French is not good enough, and my Canadian is even worse. He said, “The members like it, but they no longer talk to the Parliament; they talk to their constituents.” We must beware of this constitutional matter, which relates to the stewardship point made by the right hon. Member for South Down. Burke said that he was a Member of Parliament first and a Member of Parliament for Bristol second. Members of Parliament here are supposed to address Parliament. There are other opportunities and avenues for addressing constituents. We must not be distracted from our work in addressing Parliament. Anything else is an abortion of what this place is—a forum for deliberation.

I received a similar response about the televising of the American House of Representatives. Speeches no longer have relevance, because they are directed towards far-flung constituents. Let us not fall into that trap.

Mr. Lawler

I do not know whether my hon. Friend has read an article by a former Clerk of the House of Commons of Ottawa—a Mr. Fraser—who says:

“What have been the results after the experience? In the main very positive indeed. The activities in the most important ‘room’ in Canada are being seen and assessed by an audience much greater than was contemplated by the most enthusiastic proponents of parliamentary broadcasting.”

There is also evidence from the Speaker of the time, Mr. Jerome, who speaks favourably about the effects of televising the House.

Mr. Shepherd

I am aware of what I might call the Establishment comments. I was referring to the gentleman I came across who recounted his views. I also watched television while I was there, and saw no fair treatment of Ministers at the Dispatch Box. The Tory party in Canada has enough troubles at present without everyone having a field day at Ministers’ expense. When I watched the televised proceedings on the news, I did not see a balanced picture of what had happened in the House that afternoon, only the Minister in an acute state of discomfiture and the Opposition in a state of triumph. That may be the realistic position, but I could not see on television whether the Minister had had better moments before or after. I saw only the part where he was most discomfited. I had a profound distrust of what I was watching and wondered whether it was right.

Mr. Marlow

It was good entertainment though.

Mr. Shepherd

That is perfectly correct. Indeed, I thought that it had boiled down to entertainment only. Although the proceedings are broadcast the entire time that the House is sitting, it is open to news editors to select those parts that they wish to show for onward transmission.

​ I hope that the House realises that the case for change has not been made today, and that there are pitfalls. I end with the remarks of a robust housewife from Halifax, Nova Scotia, who took me figuratively by the lapels and said,

“The House of Commons in Ottawa has not benefited at all from television. Do not let them do it to you”.

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.

Nigel Forman – 1985 Speech on the Televising of the Commons

Below is the text of the speech made by Nigel Forman, the then Conservative MP for Carshalton and Wellington, in the House of Commons on 20 November 1985.

I have had the benefit of listening to most of the debate, but I have the disadvantage, therefore, of not being able to say a great deal that is new. It is important for the House to focus on the terms of the motion and to note carefully that it invites the House to approve in principle the holding of an experiment on television broadcasting. The motion— ​ I am sure unwittingly—is somewhat misleading. Either we approve the principle of television coverage or we do not. The issue is as straightforward as that.

I am against the proposal, for reasons upon which I shall touch. I would support the idea, if necessary, if we were initially to set up a Select Committee to investigate all the issues before there was any question of a decision in principle being taken. The idea of approving an experiment and then setting up a Select Committee to examine the consequences of the experiment is to take things in the wrong order. I was only partly reassured when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said that there might be an opportunity for a final decision at a subsequent stage.

My reasons for opposing the principle can be stated simply. They closely resemble some of the arguments which have been advanced by some of my hon. Friends. I am sure that the evidence tells us that television has a tendency to distort, sensationalise and trivialise the events that it seeks to portray. If the House is not convinced of that argument, it must understand from the works of Mr. McLuhan and others that it has been demonstrated pretty clearly that television is qualitatively different from other media of mass communication. In many instances television personnel do not want to behave in a way that will have that result, but the outcome is inherent in the imperatives of the medium—for example, brevity and what producers call “good television”. There is a ratings war between the various television companies and the likelihood is that it will hot up.

Television is a medium which serves to create impressions rather than conveying information. It encourages instant viewer response rather than mature and thoughtful reflection. Unlike newspapers, which allow the reader to turn back a page or to re-read a paragraph, or radio, which allows for real concentration and reflection, which is possible when we listen to something intently, television merely creates images and impressions. Whenever audience polls are conducted, when a representative cross-sample is asked whether it remembers one thing that anyone has said during a television programme, the responses show that the majority can remember nothing of the content. That goes for educated people as well as for those who have not had the good fortune to receive a reasonable education.

If we want to convey serious and complicated ideas, television, which has many other strengths, is not the appropriate medium. However, we are trying to grapple with, discuss and convey serious and complicated ideas during the bulk of our proceedings.

If television coverage of our proceedings in the Chamber were introduced, I believe that it would have far-reaching and unintended effects on our procedure. It would increase pressure for the prior organisation and manipulation of parliamentary debates. There is enough of that already, thanks to the usual channels. There is no doubt that it would lead us to copy the House of Representatives in the United States. Increasingly in that forum a representative can speak on the floor of the house only if he has an ex officio right to do so for a specified period. That procedure would work against anyone who saw a need, in the interest of his constituents, to filibuster. It would work also against the interests of spontaneity. I think that it would damage the quality of our debates in the Chamber.

Such a tendency would increase the pressure for equal time for the parties, or for more equal time to reflect the balance of votes won in the country. We all know that this is an issue just below the horizon in the overall political debate, especially between the alliance parties and the Labour party in the present Parliament. This would merely result in an awkward twist to that problem. It would increase also the pressure for the timetabling and programming of what we do in this place and so work against the interests of individual parliamentary initiative and the sort of spontaneous combustion which, as the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) mentioned by implication, is such an essential part of our parliamentary work.

If television were to be introduced, it would create a minefield of editorial disputes between the media men and the politicians. We only fool ourselves if we think otherwise. There would be disputes over the selection of the material to be emphasised in what must necessarily be short television programmes. There would be disputes over alleged trivialisation and sensationalism of the issues in the interests of grabbing and maintaining the public’s interest. No producer will hold on to a public affairs programme for very long in the face of commercial imperatives—all television has these imperatives behind it in various forms—if he does not obtain the necessary ratings. There would be disputes over the allocation of screen time between the parties. There is enough argument now about party political broadcasts and the carve-up of time that is involved. That argument would be extended to parliamentary proceedings.

The minority parties would argue for more equal time on the strength of their share of the popular vote. The official Opposition would argue their corner on the basis of their time-honoured position in the House. The governing party would argue its corner on the strength of its electoral victory and its parliamentary majority. In other words, there would be a minefield of potential editorial difficulty.

If the House were to control these editorial issues, I suspect that many members of the media would soon lose interest in the idea altogether. It would be a price that they would not be prepared to pay, and it would be contrary to one of their basic assumptions. That is an assumption to which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has already drawn our attention. If television producers were to have the last word, that could be the cause of endless suspicion and resentment between this place and the media world. I do not think that we need that. We need creative tension between the fourth estate and the House but we do not want the mutual recrimination and suspicion that might be generated if producers were to have the last word in this matter.

Mr. Shore

Why does the hon. Gentleman think that the difficulties which he has aptly described will be greater with the introduction of television cameras than they have been during the past seven years of broadcasting in the House?

Mr. Forman

The main reason why the difficulties would be greater stems from my first argument about the qualitative difference of television from other media of mass communication. All the evidence shows that the impressions and images that television is capable of creating—this happens sometimes unwittingly—are ​ infinitely more powerful, and therefore potentially more damaging, than anything which is broadcast over the radio or printed in the columns of the press. For that reason, I suggest that right hon. and hon. Members would become infinitely more concerned about the consequences.

My final major reason for being opposed to the motion is that the very idea of televising the House, if carried forward, might in the long run further undermine the representative principle which is still the basis of our parliamentary democracy. We are all supposed to stand in a vital intermediate position between the mass electorate and Her Majesty’s Government of the day. We can choose to act as filters, or as megaphones, of public concern. We are elected to the House to debate seriously, to reflect on the issues and to reach our conclusions by vote.

We would not be able to discharge those responsibilities properly if we moved inexorably with the televising of our proceedings to a form of direct and instant appeal to what would be the court of public opinion. At the end of that road lies a sort of Orwellian push-button democracy which would have a heavy bias against public understanding and be wide open to cynical attempts at media manipulation, whether by politicians or by producers.

During the debate, two main points have been put by the proponents of the motion. They must be answered. The first is that somehow the public has a right to know and that, with the availability of modern television technology, we should fulfil that right. The answer to that fundamental point is that the public can exercise its right to know at present in a number of ways—people can sit in the Strangers Gallery, as they are doing today, and they can watch television reports of our debates and proceedings on the “9 o’Clock News” and “News at Ten”.

Another argument is that, all the time the public is supposed to come here to listen to us. That may be convenient from one point of view, but it is a fundamental part of our duty as politicians to be in our constituencies as often as possible to communicate with the people who returned us to this place and with the people who did not vote for us. The old-fashioned arts of public persuasion, communication, public meetings and use of the local press and media generally are all too easily glossed over on the assumption that all that matters is that these dreadful instruments should come into the heart of our proceedings.

The second major argument is that televising our proceedings would revive public interest in the working of our parliamentary democracy at a time when it is said to be flagging. Yet, on the contrary, there are obvious reasons why public interest in the Chamber and the workings of our parliamentary democracy may he flagging, and they have nothing to do with television. I offer the House a few headline suggestions as to those reasons. There are the deadlines imposed for printing in Fleet street, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Haffer) said. There are the entertainment imperatives of the television programmes. Above all, there is the fact that most of our debates are organised along party lines with Whips and largely predetermined party votes. If what was “said” in argument—as was the case in the middle of the 19th century, in the halcyon days of this Chamber—was to determine and influence the outcome of the vote at the end of a debate, one thing is sure: there would be far fuller regular attendance in the Chamber; people would listen to the arguments and would occasionally be persuaded by them; and there would be a much more favourable public impression of our proceedings.

I oppose the motion because the case for televising our proceedings has not been made out conclusively, and certainly not in relation to televising this Chamber’s proceedings. If the motion were passed and we were to proceed to televise, let us by all means begin by following the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart). He pointed out that there is discretion in these matters in the United States Senate and, in contrast to the House of Representatives, cameras are allowed in to the special committees, which are analogous to our Select Committees. If we want a real-life experiment with broadcasting in the Palace of Westminster, let us try that. But let us keep it out of this Chamber until we are all more certain of the overwhelming benefits.

Dale Campbell-Savours – 1985 Speech on the Televising of the Commons

Below is the text of the speech made by Dale Campbell-Savours, the then Labour MP for Workington, in the House of Commons on 20 November 1985.

I was elected to this House in the 1979 general election. On the first day that I came here, instead of going to claim my locker and desk, my first action was to walk into the Chamber, stand at the Bar and ponder over where I would sit for the period that I would spend in Parliament.

I decided to sit in the seat that I now occupy, and I have sat here ever since. I chose this seat because I wanted to occupy a position from which I could oversee the Government Dispatch Box. I had heard repeatedly over the years arguments deployed, for example, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) and the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) to the effect that the House of Commons, and in particular this Chamber, was all-important.

I had been told that any new Member had all sorts of opportunities open to him to represent his electorate, such as making direct representations to Ministers and their Departments and by correspondence. However, a good and effective Member of Parliament, I was informed, should concentrate on using this Chamber and ensure that the focus of his attention was the Government Dispatch Box. I remain convinced that that is the crucial point on which we should concentrate our debates.

I rapidly learned that, though Members of Parliament, we are tradesmen in the sense that we have a craft. Our craft is to know how to use this Chamber and its procedures and to intervene in debates in a way that has impact. We must argue our case, but most of all we must be able to press Ministers at the Dispatch Box on important issues.

I have learnt over the years that, if pressed in the right way, a Minister at the Dispatch Box will respond. Indeed, Ministers have been known when speaking from the Dispatch Box to change their position, having become aware of the hostility from the Floor of the House towards what they were proposing. Ministers have had to return to their Departments and complain to their civil servants about the nature of briefing material, which they felt was inadequate to deal with the level of opposition by Opposition Members.

I oppose the televising of our proceedings for a simple reason, and I tell that story of my coming into Parliament as the background to that reason. It is that, in the practice of our craft, we in this Chamber must sometimes do things that are ugly, and the public will not wish to see them. ​ They are practices which some would describe as lacking in decorum, although they are crucial to the way we conduct ourselves in the Chamber.

A sedentary intervention, or even a series of them, in the speech of a Minister can have the effect of pressing him so much that he may modify his position. That can happen at the Dispatch Box or in subsequent debate. Those pressures may be crucial. However, if the public saw those pressures being applied—I say that irrespective of Government and from whichever Benches they are applied; hon. Gentlemen sitting on the Government Front Bench below the Gangway have applied pressure on their own Ministers—and saw us applying our craft in such an ugly way, it might incur their wrath. That could happen if such ugliness were displayed on the television screens of the nation.

An example of that occurred some years ago, I am told, before I arrived here. I gather that the present Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster occupied a seat on the Opposition Front Bench below the Gangway for five years and that he was known affectionately as the Chingford skinhead. I am told that he was a most effective opponent of the then Labour Government. Indeed, I have been informed that some Labour Ministers feared him—[Interruption.] Former Labour Ministers admit that he was a formidable opponent in opposition.

Today, some of my hon. Friends who occupy seats on the Opposition Front Bench below the Gangway are equally vociferous and effective in their opposition to the Government, as are some hon. Gentlemen who occupy seats on the Government Front Bench below the Gangway. They know that they are effective when they challenge their own Ministers.

Can hon. Members afford to let their constituents see them practising their ugly craft? [Interruption.] Yes, it is ugly. On occasions it may be considered acceptable, but some people, without understanding the nature of sedentary interventions, may believe that they lack decorum. However, if such action has the effect of modifying a Minister’s approach, let alone changing Government policy, the hon. Member adopting it has been effective.

If the television cameras are allowed in, some of my hon. Friends who sit on the Opposition Front Bench below the Gangway—and some hon. Gentlemen who sit on the Government Front Bench below the Gangway and who, without the cameras, are courageous enough to criticise their own Ministers—may feel constrained in their attitude—[HON. MEMBERS: “No.”] It is all very well for hon. Members to say no, but I am laying down my marker in the belief that the intrusion of the cameras will constrain hon. Members in the way they practise their craft. I rest my case on that, and time will tell whether what I have said is correct.