Select Committee on Broadcasting First Report


67. It may be appropriate at this point in the Report to consider the success, or otherwise, of the televising of Parliament.

68. In moving the Motion to approve in principal the holding of a televising experiment, Mr Anthony Nelson MP expressed the rationale for letting the television cameras in:

  "The respect, awareness and support of the public who elected us to this place are essential ingredients of the activities of the House. Their understanding, respect and awareness of what goes on here cannot be complete without seeing as well as hearing and reading what we do. Is it not at least absurd and anachronistic—at worst patronising—that one can read reports of this place, listen to proceedings on the radio and come to the Public Gallery and see them and that they are reported vicariously, but that one is not allowed to see them on television? The time has come to take this modest but historic step."[21]

69. He continued

  ".... If the public live in ignorance because they are unable to see what happens here, that will ferment and breed suspicion and mis-understanding of our proceedings".[22]

70. Mr Frank Dobson MP continued this theme when he said:

  "Technological change makes it possible for people to see and hear their elected representatives at work .... Television makes it possible for all people and not just a privileged few to see and hear what we are doing .... If Members of Parliament do not trust the television authorities or will not trust one another if the television cameras are allowed in, they should remember that democracy is based upon a deeper and wider trust".[23]

71. Indeed, "democracy" was the fundamental theme that ran throughout the debate in February 1988, that launched the experiment that was to lead to the televising of the House of Commons.

72. Mr Peter Shore MP expanded on this, when he said:

  "Ever since democracy was born in Athens and the city state, the problem has always been that it cannot be direct .... It has had to be representative democracy. As such there has been a problem of communication—of the gap that lies between those who represent and those who are represented. Our technology and ingenuity have presented us in the second half of the 20th Century with a most marvellous and remarkable way of closing that gap".[24]

73. At the dawn of the 21st Century, despite all the digital advances in television technology that have been made since 1988, it remains a sad fact that most of the people of the United Kingdom are denied the full and proper access to the workings of Parliament, its debates in the Chamber, in Select and Standing Committees which was so clearly envisaged by those who supported the televising of the House when the experimental period was first introduced.

74. Insofar as comprehensive television coverage is available, through BBC Parliament, access is limited to those with satellite or cable services. Even then, although BBC Parliament transmits between 5.30 a.m. and midnight (or later as required) it was stated during the Committee's visit to the Offices of BBC Parliament that some cable companies have a cut-off point at midnight in any case.

75. Analogue television does not offer sufficient spectrum to accommodate dedicated, terrestrial, free-to-air coverage and, to date, no digital spectrum has been made available to allow for the future development of the kind of universally available access that would provide the cornerstone for "televised democracy".

76. Furthermore, coverage of select committee hearings and standing committee proceedings is based upon "news values" and left to the editorial judgement of broadcasters to determine whether or not a hearing, however important, is sufficiently "sexy" in news terms to warrant camera coverage. As many Members who have served on Standing Committees will no doubt confirm, their proceedings can be dull or arcane. While that may influence broadcasters to adopt what is, for them, a sound news-gathering procedure it has much less to do with democratic access to the proceedings of Parliament. Line by line scrutiny of Bills is at the very heart of Parliamentary procedure.

77. We therefore conclude that, in the terms that the televising of the House was originally conceived, the availability of coverage has failed, and continues to fail, the people of the United Kingdom by broadcasters cherry-picking the sound-bite and the confrontational. As far as televising Parliament is concerned, the broadcasters' duty is to educate and inform, not simply entertain.

(a) A dedicated channel?

78. During the debate on 12 June 1989, which considered the way in which the experiment should be conducted, the question of a dedicated channel was raised. Mr Frank Dobson MP stated:

  "I am reasonably convinced that Members on both sides of the Committee want a dedicated channel as soon as it is technically possible .... A dedicated channel would provide the protection of ensuring that everything is shown .... I am in favour of a dedicated channel providing full coverage as soon as that is possible".[25]

79. A predecessor Committee had itself stated:

  "We re-iterate our belief in the need for a dedicated channel providing continuous, unedited coverage of the House's proceedings and we recommend that this should be provided at the earliest opportunity as an adjunct to the permanent televising of the House".[26]

80. During the debate on 19 July 1990, which made the experiment permanent, the then Leader of the House, Sir Geoffrey Howe MP, was unequivocal:

  "The case for a dedicated channel is accepted ...."[27]


81. In a report produced in 1990 by Mallory Wober of the IBA and Moira Bovill of the BBC, Members' views on televising were analysed. The report found that:

  "There is firm agreement that television should show the work of Select and Standing Committees ...."[28]

82. It found also that:

  ".... Members were keen to see a dedicated Parliamentary Channel. Overall, they considered it should then provide material, as required, for other Channels".[29]

83. Finally, another predecessor Committee recognised:

  "... that many Members will wish to be reassured that any proposal for a dedicated channel endorsed by the House will be seriously pursued and that any undertakings given regarding its scope, timing and viability are adhered to .... We intend to keep under review the number of viewers with access to a dedicated channel, regarding potential especially in the context of the availability of additional Channels on the Astra 1c satellite in two or three years' time".[30]

21   Official Report, 9 February 1988, Col. 195. Back

22   Ibid., Col. 200. Back

23   Ibid., Col. 215. Back

24   Ibid., Cols 234-235. Back

25   Official Report, 12 June 1989, Cols. 621-622. Back

26   First Report from the Select Committee on the Televising of Proceedings of the House, Session 1989-90, Review of the Experiment in Televising the Proceedings of the House, HC (1989-90) 265-I, p. xliii. Back

27   Official Report, 19 July 1990, Col. 1273. Back

28   Television in the Commons-Members Experience and Attitudes concerning the experiment, May 1990, p.21. Back

29   Ibid., p. 34. Back

30   First Report from the Select Committee on Broadcasting, &c, Session 1990-91, The arrangements for the permanent televising of the proceedings of the House, HC (1990-91) 11, p. xxxiii. Back

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