Tom Richmond: Quality of debate is so vital in the age of the soundbite

IT SEEMS astonishing, looking back, that there was an element of doubt about television cameras being allowed to film Parliamentary proceedings for the first time 25 years ago. After all, November 1989 was the momentous month in world history when eastern Europe was being liberated by the collapse of the Berlin Wall as the Cold War came to an end.

Yet, despite Margaret Thatcher being instrumental in persuading former Communist dictatorships to embrace democracy, she – and many of her then colleagues – were more coy about cameras being allowed to film exchanges in the Mother of Parliaments on a trial basis before the experiment became permanent.

It was reflected by the very first debate – the then Bradford MP, Bob Cryer, made a brief intervention to secure his place in history as the first politician of the television era before Ian Gow delivered the opening speech and made reference to a letter he had ignored from image consulants.

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“I have always voted against the televising of proceedings in this House, and I expect that I always will,” he began. “A letter that I received three weeks ago made the following preposterous assertion. ‘The impression you make on television depends mainly on your image (55 per cent), with your voice and body language accounting for 38 per cent of your impact. Only seven per cent depends on what you are actually saying’.”

At the end of a decade that had seen families huddle around transistor radios to listen to the historic Saturday debate in 1982 when MPs agreed to send a Task Force to liberate the Falklands, the opening exchanges between Mrs Thatcher and the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock were more reverential than their twice-weekly exchanges which had been heard but not seen for so long.

The Yorkshire Post reported that both leaders “sought to appear more gracious than usual, standing down to let backbencher after backbencher intervene with abnormal frequency”, but it did not take long for political substance to prevail over style – the next 12 months would reveal Margaret Thatcher at her most domineering, and also her most vulnerable.

I’ll never forget the bravado of her “I’m enjoying this” speech as she responded to a Labour vote of no confidence, and the jibes of Dennis Skinner, on the day she tendered her resignation in November 1990.

The fact these proceedings were televised made them even more relevant to the country at large, something that Tony Blair noted when he became Opposition leader in 1994. He was already mastering the art of the headline-making soundbite and his devastating charge of “Weak, Weak, Weak” against a hapless and helpless John Major on the eve of the 1997 election was, in many respects, the beginning of the end of serious political debate and dialogue at Westminster.

Until then, proceedings had been more civil – the green benches were packed with many MPs scarred by their battlefield experiences in the Second World War and the perspective that this brought.

Now Blair, a consummate media performer, changed the dynamics of debate – and not necessarily for the better. He allowed Prime Minister’s Questions to be degraded by interventions from party loyalists who had been briefed on what to say by the whips (David Cameron’s toadying Tories are just as bad).

His objective was to come out with a policy or phrase that would lead the BBC’s news bulletins – and the Corporation obliged.

In this regard, all MPs – and the national broadcasters – are complicit for turning Parliamentary politics into the pantomime that many predicted a quarter of a century ago.

Prime Minister’s Questions, an occasion that is still the envy of the world, is simply a case of who can shout the loudest. It has also been allowed to detract from the effectiveness of the select committees that are now televised – the grilling of those council and police chiefs culpable over the Rotherham sex grooming scandal is a case in point – while many backbenchers make meritorious speeches that are afforded scant attention.

One of the most recent was Elmet and Rothwell MP Alex Shelbrooke’s appeal for justice on behalf of the family of Callum Wark who was killed by a drunken Bulgarian lorry driver who was three times over the legal limit.

These two examples – and I could list many more – typify the best of Parliament and television certainly added to their impact. Most MPs are, I believe, motivated by the best of intentions.

But, if politicians want to win back the country’s trust and respect ahead of an election that will be fought in the broadcast studios rather than on the traditional hustings, the main protagonists need to enhance the quality of debate rather than resorting to headline-making cheap shots. If they do, they may – just – find that the electorate are more inclined to listen respectfully rather than resorting to the “off” button on the television remote control.