Gordon Wilson – 1985 Speech on the Televising of the Commons

Below is the text of the speech made by Gordon Wilson, the then SNP MP for Dundee East, in the House of Commons on 20 November 1985.

The hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Lawler) lives in cloud-cuckoo-land if he believes that the public will receive his speech or mine at great length and watch them unadulterated and unedited. My impression is that there is not much demand for the televising of Parliament. People ​ will probably want to see snippets on the “9 o’clock News” or “News at Ten”, and that will be the end of it. I am not against the televising of Parliament, but we must be realistic about the coverage that will be achieved.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should not treat the Chamber as if it were a sacred institution, with the idea that it would be sacrilege to alter it. I am only too well aware of the inadequacy of our procedures. Hon. Members must be frustrated by the lack of financial power we have in the House compared with many Parliaments in western Europe and beyond.

We are in danger of taking the debate out of context. I was prepared to vote against the motion because it seemed to me wrong that we should vote for a principle without knowing the practicalities. According to the motion, which the hon. Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes) moved so well, we were apparently prepared to agree to an experiment in principle and then to have running sidesaddle with it, so to speak, a Select Committee charged with the job of implementing it but not with the consideration of whether it would be desirable.

However, the Leader of the House has swayed some of my views, because, if we follow his advice and vote for the motion, we shall not be voting for what it describes. In other words, we shall have an opportunity to consider the principle and the detail when the Select Committee reports. It will then be possible to put the boot in to the proposal if it does not match up to what we expected.

The House, through the Select Committee and the debate that we shall have in six months, can dictate to the broadcasters what it wants to put over. We could make many mistakes. We do not have to look far from sound broadcasting, which I think was one of the biggest gaffes the House has made for a long time. That is saying something considering some of the peculiar decisions that we have made.

Broadcasters naturally look at the most entertaining and lively parts of our proceedings. That must of course mean Question Time. Question Time is entertainment. We should all stagger back in disbelief if we ever managed to obtain some information out of Question Time. It is there. It is prime time. The public desperately want tickets to get in and it is carried to its zenith—if I may use that description, probably incorrectly—at Prime Minister’s Question Time. We face each other in an adversarial, indeed gladiatorial, fashion and make a great deal of noise. If we want to get rid of the noise, we must alter the shape of the Chamber and call people to a rostrum to make speeches. We should soon all be preserved in aspic and the quality of many of our debates would decline.

One of the dangers of introducing television to the House without considering our procedures is that their shape may change in a way that we have not determined. Right from the start, we must take on board the fact that we are moving towards television because television is the principal medium of communication. It is the medium for election fighting. It is anachronistic to go around knocking on doors and speaking to our constituents. With one television appearance, we can reach more constituents during an election than we can with all our knocking on doors. Leaflets through the door are not a useful way of imparting ideas. Television is the medium.

I suspect that one of the reasons why we are discussing this issue tonight is that we are in the gravitational pull of a general election. Some people have been looking at their sums and are beginning to say, “We should have coverage ​ on television during the run-up to an election because we may put over our case more effectively.” If we introduce this experiment, we should not do it in the run-up to a general election. It would be far more effective to introduce it immediately after the election of a new Parliament.

I have some doubt about what the practical effects of television coverage might be. I take up some of the points made by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on the subject of Question Time. If Question Time gets the television slots, members of a minority party will want to be called, because Question Time receives the coverage. All hon. Members will have to change their priorities. It will not just be a matter for minority parties. There will be competition for a restricted time slot.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

Would it not be better, instead of coverage being slotted into programmes, to have a 24-hour channel so that people could switch on and off when they wished? That would prevent all the problems. It could cover the work of Select Committees and the Standing Committees which do most of the work.

Mr. Wilson

The hon. Gentleman has raised an interesting point. He must remember that the electorate might not want to watch a 24-hour channel. Heaven forbid that we move to a 24-hour day.

My point is still valid; if we are talking of television we are talking of prime time. Prime Minister’s Question Time takes place at the right time of day for coverage in the news programmes. In general debates, if a Member is not called before 5 o’clock, his chances of being quoted in the television news have probably gone. The point has already been made about statements. We will have to re-adjust our individual, party and parliamentary priorities to meet the demand made by the new medium. Many of us may be disappointed and disillusioned by the experiment, and electors may reach a similar view.

Practical problems must be considered. I want to make it clear on behalf of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party that we would not be happy to be represented on the Select Committee by a member of the SDP or the Liberal party. [HON. MEMBERS: “Where are they?”] They have vanished to do their plethora of television interviews. At one time we could have trusted members of those parties, because they wanted to further the interests of smaller parties. They now have ambitions beyond their stature. They are imperialist in the sense that they want to aggrandise themselves to get media coverage. That is legitimate, but I should not like to trust our parties to their care on the Select Committee.

The Leader of the House will not be able to answer other specific points, but I wish to put them on the record on behalf of Plaid Cymru and the SNP. What facilities will be made available to broadcasters in Scotland and Wales? Will adequate editing facilities be available? The experiment should not be done purely on a metropolitan basis. Many hon. Members will want their local television stations to have access to coverage of their own speeches as frequently as possible.

Important debates on housing and local government in Scotland and Wales often take place after 10.30 pm. Will the television cameras cover those proceedings in the wee small hours of the night? Those debates will affect our constituents more perhaps than grand debates on foreign ​ affairs. If the cameramen will be there at that time, who will pay them? Will it be the House, the BBC. ITN or the local companies? The local companies would not want to take on that expense.

There are the proceedings of Select Committees, and of Standing Committees too, although heaven forbid that anyone should want to watch what we get up to there. What about the Scottish and the Welsh Grand Committees’? The Scottish Grand Committee deals with some Bills that might otherwise be taken on the Floor of the House. Is the Scottish Grand Committee to be covered? If not, we should insist that all Scottish Bills are dealt with in the House because of the possibility of television coverage.

If the Scottish Grand Committee is covered, will its proceedings be televised when it meets in the Scottish Assembly building in Edinburgh? As the Leader of the House is no doubt aware, it meets in Edinburgh four or five times a year to deal with legislation and other important matters. Who will take the cameras there for occasional visits? Yet it would be wrong if important visits by Scottish Members to the Scottish Grand Committee in their own country were not covered. The gallery is not large enough to accommodate many members of the public, although I must put it on record that my experience of meetings in Edinburgh is that the general public are not keen to inflict on themselves the same masochistic damage that we inflict on ourselves.

I support in principle the televising of the House, but I have reservations about how it may be put into effect. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I will support the motion because of the assurance given by the Leader of the House that the principle of coverage will be married to a detailed report from the Select Committee and that we will have another bite at the apple.