THIRTY years ago come tomorrow the House Commons at long last admitted TV cameras to its chamber. Television broadcasting started with the Debate on the Address immediately following the Queen’s Speech inaugurating a new session of Parliament.
I remember it well because Margaret Thatcher had deputed me to look after her interests in the negotiations over the conditions under which the cameras would be admitted.
This meant that I was a bit of a damp squib because she was utterly opposed to the idea. I thought she could not lose, but she felt strongly that it would change the Commons for the worse. Let us set aside the difficulty of discriminating against TV when press and radio were already admitted.
Instead, let us examine who was right. Well Mrs Thatcher did not suffer personally – even if within a year she was making her memorably televised resignation speech and professing to be enjoying it. She was very telegenic.
But on the whole I think she was right about the long-term effect of TV on the Commons.
First, I do not think it gives a balanced view of Parliament which is often concerned with dry-as-dust matters that would send the average viewer to sleep in his armchair. Television has long ceased to provide in-depth discussion of issues of the kind we got from Robin Day, Alastair Burnett and Brian Walden interviews.
Instead, its aim is to attract and keep bums on seats. We get the drama but not necessarily the substance. TV has reduced our attention span to that of a gnat. We want lights, action, music with a bit of how’s yer father thrown in.
My remit in what seemed to be interminable negotiations leading up to November 21, 1989, was to limit the use of cameras – to concentrate on the speaker, no “panning” and no reaction shots.
I also advised the PM and Ministers that they would be performing on a national – indeed – world stage and should watch their stance, behaviour and language. Gowers’ Plain Words should be required reading for all MPs.
On her first outing under the lights in opening the debate on the Queen’s Speech, Mrs Thatcher changed her style, giving way to 13 interventions. She then rendered Mr Speaker (Bernard Weatherill) redundant by setting out the order in which she would take them. It was not very tidy but it was theatrical.
And, in a shape of things to come, broadcasters bent the rules by throwing in some reaction shots. Before we knew where we were, no holds were barred, as it were, and the parties had introduced “doughnutting” – surrounding the leader with bright, shiny, noddingly supportive, not to say adoring, members, preferably women.
In the first televised speech by an MP, Ian Gow, the PM’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, blew the gaffe on the whole thing. He quoted from a circular to MPs from image consultants saying that the impression they made on TV depended mainly on their image (55 per cent), voice and body language (38 per cent) and what they say a mere seven per cent.
Would ex-Speaker Bercow and his exaggerated “Order” have become a notorious thespian – or even biased – without TV?
All this, coupled with the daily flow of MPs across the street to speak to cameras on College Green, underlines the extent to which Parliament has become a TV plaything concerned with style not substance. Hansard will record your speech for posterity, but TV, especially local, is irresistible.
Mrs Thatcher was right: things have not been the same since. But how can you justify excluding cameras as a means of communication when the Parliamentary Press Gallery has been reporting the proceedings for 148 years?
Search me, but don’t let us kid ourselves TV has necessarily improved public understanding of the great issues that confront the nation, though a majority has got the point about the need for Brexit.
Talking of which, I regret that Jo Swinson, the Liberal leader, was excluded from last night’s ITV election debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. It is a pity she has felt obliged to sue ITV over her exclusion. After all, I must not be the only one desperate to know why the Liberal Democrats are absolutely determined to remain in the bureaucratic, undemocratic, protectionist, expensive, corrupt and failing EU club that has such an inferiority complex about the British
Or perhaps I am asking for too much since the vast array of media output, including televising the House, has left us none the wiser for years?