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.