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.