Select Committee on Broadcasting First Report


84. In the earlier part of this Report, the Committee has described the history and the current situation concerning the broadcasting of Parliament—but what of the future? The Committee considers that webcasting, i.e. broadcasting Parliament over the internet, could offer the way forward. The Committee was interested to note that on 17 May 2000, the Opening Day of the Scottish Parliament's meeting in Glasgow was carried live on the internet, as a pilot for future use of the web to broadcast the Parliament.

85. The internet is fast becoming a viable way of distributing moving pictures and sound. High data transmission speeds, which are necessary for acceptable picture and sound quality, are becoming more commonplace as the worldwide demand for such services grows. The growth of internet transmission capacity is likely to continue, driven by consumer demand.

86. The internet offers worldwide availability, and is not bound by broadcast time. To the user, it makes no difference where in the world the service originates. Broadly speaking, all users have equal access, limited only by the capacity of their local connection. The downside of this is that once something is made openly available on the internet it becomes difficult to regulate the use made of the material, and associated rights.

87. The principle of making the proceedings of Parliament widely available to the electorate is attractive in a democracy, if a cheap means of distribution can be found.

88. At present, Parliament controls the rights to the use of the Parliamentary television clean feeds by licensing most UK broadcasters, who in return contribute to the cost of the operation which generates the feeds. Parliament has put in place controls over the content of the signals and the way in which the signals may be used.

89. There is growing interest among website operators in the idea of carrying Parliamentary television pictures or sound in a variety of guises as a way of adding value to their websites. Parliament should take an interest in how and where the signals appear on the internet.

90. There have been different approaches to the representation of Parliament on the internet to date. These have included still pictures taken from the Parliamentary television feeds (e.g. the BBC Parliament website), audio excerpts (e.g. the Mirror Group website special feature on Scottish devolution). As yet, there has been no sustained attempt by UK website operators to carry any degree of coverage with moving pictures or live sound.

91. There is real commercial interest in using the internet as a delivery system for all types of sound and vision broadcasting. The demands on the internet to cope with this will lead to a quantum improvement in internet capacity which will enable the business and home user easier access to the high speed connections which are necessary for smooth picture performance.

92. C-SPAN, whose operation the Committee had a chance to study during its visit to Washington DC, is a national cable channel which carries coverage of Congress and Senate. Its website carries a small-size version of the channel's output in sound and vision. The website as a whole carries a great deal of background information about the work of the channel and the US Government, and is heavily "branded" as a marketing exercise for C-SPAN, which is itself funded as a marketing tool of American cable TV system operators.

93. The alternative to leaving it to the broadcasters is to make the clean feeds from Parliament available directly on the internet where they can be viewed in complete and unedited form.

94. Far more television coverage is generated by the Parliamentary television contractor than is shown on any one broadcasting channel. At peak times this currently amounts to two live continuous feeds from the chambers (Commons and Lords) plus up to four live simultaneous feeds from Committee rooms. This tally is set to grow when Portcullis House brings more facilities into play.

95. The internet offers the possibility of making all of this live coverage available at a cost which would have been inconceivable only a few years ago. Furthermore, the reach of the internet is international.

96. In simple terms, the technology required amounts to a fast computer encoding the live television feeds into a continuous digital data stream. This stream is passed onto the internet via a high capacity data link to an Internet Access Provider at a central point in the UK internet structure. At this point the data is available both nationally and worldwide through the international connections of the internet.

97. The logical place to locate the central video encoding computer would appear to be in the Parliamentary television technical area in 7 Millbank, where there is already access to all Parliamentary television feeds. However, with modern technology, there is no reason why the computer has to be situated in 7 Millbank.

98. Internet capacity can now support the possibility of distributing Parliamentary television coverage in a useful form and whilst broadcasters may offer some coverage on their websites, this is an incomplete solution which would not be under Parliamentary control or direction.

99. Parliament has the opportunity, at a relatively low cost, to make all internet coverage available from one authoritative source, on a par with the existing broadcasting arrangements. Imaginative licensing and other revenue streams could lead to zero cost to the public purse, or even generate a surplus. In such a way, Parliament would have an opportunity to put right those failings which the Committee identified earlier.

100. This would have the effect of making Parliamentary proceedings available throughout the country and the world beyond, offering educational, geopolitical and administrative advantages.

101. We consider that webcasting offers the optimum solution, and recommend that the relevant officials of both Houses actively pursue webcast potential, and to seek those areas where both Houses can act together in order to ensure that "access to Parliament" is available to all. The ideal would be for this access to include sound feed and, at least, limited vision coverage, of all public sessions of Committees of the House to be available via the internet.

102. As the Committee considers that access to Parliament via the internet should be available to everyone in the UK, it welcomes the Government's initiatives in funding high speed internet connections in schools, other learning institutions[32] and public libraries.[33] These initiatives, coupled with the Committee's recommendation, could help ensure that there is no reason why UK citizens could not become the most politically aware in the world, and to help spread, and strengthen, the idea of democracy to all people around the globe.

31   Paragraphs 85-100 draw on a background paper prepared by Westminster Digital/CCT for the Supervisor of Parliamentary Broadcasting (not reported). Back

32   See Department for Education and Employment Press Notice 488/99, £50 Million for high speed internet connections in schools, 2 November 1999. Back

33   See 10 Downing Street Magazine, Public Libraries enter the Information Age, 1 January 2000. Back

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