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Some people believe a change in our whole form of government is needed to solve the problems facing our country, while others feel no real change is necessary. Do you think a big change is needed in our form of government, or should it be kept pretty much as it is?
LII No. 1, January 1971
(Professor J. Vernon Jensen, University of Minnesota) In recent years a number of democratic countries have asked with increasing frequency and urgency whether or not the ordinary proceedings in their legislative halls should be reported by television and radio. Great Britain has been one such country which has probed this issue with increasing thoroughness in the last decade. The ceremonial State Openings of Parliament have been televised since 1958 (in colour for the first time in July 1970). But televising debates is quite a different matter. The House of Commons in November 1966, in a free vote, defeated, 131 to 130, the recommendation of its Select Committee on Broadcasting, chaired by Mr. Tom Driberg, to experiment with televising its debates. With some glee, the House of Lords thus became the first to experiment with closed-circuit television in February 1968, and the House of Commons in April and May 1968 held a closed-circuit experiment in sound broadcasting. Reports were duly made, and debates held, on these experiments but no major step forward was taken before the Wilson Government left office. What the new Conservative Government will do is yet to be seen.
This, then, is perhaps a good time to survey the major arguments pro and con. This article will attempt to summarize the clashing contentions as to the feasibility and desirability of sound and vision recordings of parliamentary debates.
Various plans for broadcasting proceedings have been made over the years. A separate television channel with complete and continuous transmission has been virtually ruled out mainly because of high cost and probable low interest of viewers. To limit the television coverage to various closed-circuit audiences, such as universities, schools, clubs, newspaper offices, and public libraries, also has had little appeal. A "drive-in" plan has been suggested, that is, instead of permanent installations, the broadcasting organization would come in only on special occasions. Reporting only in sound is another possible option. But the plan which has emerged as the most likely is for some form of late-evening television programme of approximately 30 minutes in length, which would give an edited account of the day's parliamentary debates. This is the plan long advocated by Mr. Robin Day 1 and many Members of Parliament and recommended by the Commons Select Committee. It is the feasibility and desirability of this kind of a plan with which this article is concerned.
(1) FEASIBILITY The testimony given over the years and the experience gained from the experiments in the Houses of Parliament seem to indicate clearly that it is possible to install and operate the mechanical apparatus necessary to record in sound and vision without disrupting proceedings. Miniature, remote-control cameras can be hidden in the panelling. Microphones and lights can be placed and regulated with no major problem, except that colour television will demand very bright lights, and it is now felt that colour television rather than black-and-white will have to be the medium if viewers are to be attracted in any reasonable number. Booths for broadcasting control and commentators can be situated with no great difficulty.
A second major concern is whether an edited programme could be constructed with sufficient swiftness, accuracy, completeness, fairness, and propriety. The evidence suggests that this could be done, although it admittedly will be a very
1 The Times, 13th November 1959, p. 13; Television: A Personal Report (London, Hutchinson & Co., 1961), Chapter 13; The Case for Televising Parliament' (London, The Hansard Society for Parliamentary Government, 1963); First Report from the Select Committee on Broadcasting of Proceedings in the House of Commons (London, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1966): pp. 62-72: Charles Wilson, ed., Parliaments, Peoples and Ma88 Media (London, Cassell and Company Ltd., 1970), pp. 57-60 et passim ; The Times, 11th November 1969, p. 11. For other important discussions of the issue, see Colin Seymour-Ure. "An Examination of the Proposal to Televise Parliament." Parliamentary Affairs, XVII (Spring, 1964), 172-81; "Televising Proceedings of the U.K. House of Commons", The Parliamentarian, XLVII (October 1969), 263-7: Allen Segal. "The Case for Not Televising Parliament", in Bernard Crick, The Reform of Parliament, and ed. (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968), pp. 296-306.
difficult and sensitive task. A special broadcasting unit composed of trained, objective BBC and ITV personnel, under a responsible director, and perhaps answerable to the Houses of Parliament, could be depended on to perform the task in an acceptable professional manner. Anxious to win and hold the confidence of Parliament, subject to continual criticism by the general public and by other mass-media agencies, the broadcasting unit would have many healthy restraints.
Actually, the opportunity for any one person to inject significant bias is limited, for the process of selection will be handled at different stages by first the cameraman, then the person(s) editing the "take", and then by others making final selections for actual network or regional station programmes. But some observers still feel that the possibility is too great that an edited programme would misrepresent, distort, and perhaps even ridicule the proceedings. Some fear that bizarre audience reactions would be highlighted
It is emphasized that television by its very nature is attracted to, and hence gives exposure to, the exceptional, the unusual, the abnormal, the colourful, the flamboyant, the interesting, the entertaining, and anything which involves physical motion and conflict. Extreme points of view may be selected in order to give the semblance of "balance" and objectivity, and hence moderate, middle-ofthe-road statements will be ignored. But advocates assert that many of these charges were also made against admission of reporters in the eighteenth century, and that subsequent experience has revealed no great problem.
A favourable analogy, frequently cited, is the BBC programme “Today in Parliament", broadcast at 10:45-11:00 p.m., which has been produced since 1945 without any serious complaint levied at its objectivity or professionalism. The majority view seems to be that the potential for less than perfect reporting and editing is indeed present, but that the gamble is not too great, and that one can reasonably operate in the faith that accurate, comprehensive, fair, and tasteful reporting and editing of parliamentary proceedings, even audience reactions, are feasible via sound and vision.
A basic test of practicality is to explore the relative success of similar operations which may have been tried elsewhere. Has televising and broadcasting of parliamentary proceedings in other countries been successful? The Select Committees of the Houses of Parliament have studied this question carefully by questionnaire, by gathering testimony, and by viewing films of proceedings of such bodies as the Swedish Riksdag, the German Federal Republic Bundestag, United States Congressional Committees, the Council of Europe, and the UN. A study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, reported in Geneva in December 1968,2 revealed that of the 50 countries surveyed, 29 transmit live or recorded broadcasts of daily debates, and 20 transmit live or recorded television of daily debates. Complete coverage for sittings is rare, but New Zealand (since 1936), Australia (since 1946), and the Philippines do so on the radio; and Denmark has full coverage on both radio and television. More common, however, is the broadcasting of extensive extracts at peak listening periods, often with commentary to supply coherence and continuity. Radio coverage of this type is authorized in 23 countries, and selective televising of parliamentary proceedings is done in at least eighteen countries. Advocates are quick to point to the strength of these analogues, and if broadcasting in vision and/or sound in these countries has not worked too well, advocates hastily indicate that the situations are not closely comparable to Britain. Critics, of course, emphasize the weaknesses involved in these comparisons.
Any proposal is not highly feasible unless widespread support for it can be demonstrated. Despite the defeat in November 1966, many Members of Parliament, parliamentary and political reporters, and other knowledgeable observers, have asserted throughout the last decade, and with increasing frequency and confidence, that a majority of Members of Parliament would favour experimenting with broadcasting of proceedings. It is to be remembered, however, that much of whatever support for broadcasting is present, is related merely to the further experimentation with it, not for a commitment to its adoption for permanent presentation to the public.
Younger Members have tended to favour it, while older ones have tended to oppose it. Age, certainly not party, has been a major factor. This being the case, it is suggested that as older Members are replaced by younger ones, who have grown up with television and take it for granted, an almost built-in inevitability of the coming of televised proceedings exists.
2 Charles Wilson, op. cit., pp. 118-20 et passim.
Members of Parliament are now quite at home with television and no longer view it as a fearful foe demanding special stilted behaviour. During the 1950s if a government leader were to participate in a television prc gramme, he would come early and stay late with much red-carpet treatment; now this social fuss and tension is virtually non-existent. Public opinion has been slow to register on the issue. The Select Committee of the Commons in its 1966 report was moderately impressed with the evidence to that time, and felt that televised proceedings would eventually meet with favourable response. Advocates feel that a latent favourable public opinion does exist, but that the public has had little reason to give much thought to, and little opportunity to express itself explicitly on, the issue. Advocates point to the huge estimated viewing audiences of the televised State Openings of Parliament, and claim that, while a far smaller audience naturally would be interested in ordinary parliamentary proceedings, nevertheless the number would still exceed 500,000, which would still be a sizeable audience. But right up to the present writing of this article, opponents rely heavily on the argument that televising is unwise in the absence of any widespread public favour.
The feasibility of televising proceedings is enhanced, so its advocates assert, by the very fact that the electronic media are inevitably entering into more and more areas of life, and man is coming to rely more and more on them. Television and radio are increasingly the media through which people are informed of political, sporting, and cultural events. People consider what they see on television to be more authentic and more interesting than what they see in print. They have quickly budgeted their time to include many hours for the electronic media. It is asserted that a society can gain nothing by ignoring the natural evolutionary advances of processes of communication. Thus, it will be only a matter of time, advocates contend, before the electronic media will be permitted to report parliamentary debates. Opponents quickly respond that, even if it is in veitable that the electronic media do have an increasing role in society, that still does not argue for admitting them into every area of life, and is no argument for admitting them into the nation's political workshop, the debating Chambers of Parliament.
Will broadcasting parliamentary debates run into legal obstables which will affect its feasibility? The Select Committee of the Commons ir its report of 1966 concluded:
"There seems to be no doubt that the privileges inherent in the House would be adequate to control whatever agencies were vermitted to broadcast its proceedings. The House could in virtue of its privileges treat as contempt reflections on the House or other indignities offered during a broadcast commentary. The AttorneyGeneral expressed the view that Members who made defamatory statements in the House would probably be protected by absolute privilege, if such statements were included in broadcasts of the proceedings." 3
A joint Committee of both Houses recommended in 1969 that the broadcasting organization should also be given absolute protection, thus going beyond the qualified protection granted to mass media in general by the Defamation Act of 1932. These legal aspects would have to be definitely clarified and finalized before televising of proceedings could be permanently engaged in.
A final issue relevant to feasibility, and a dominant one on which opponents rely heavily, is the factor of cost. To broadcast daily proceedings will be enormously expensive. The Select Committee of the Commons reported in 1966 that the capital cost of providing and installing equipment for continuous sound coverage would be £30,000, for television £100,000, for editing a programme £380,000, plus an additional £642.000 to cover Standing Committee meetings in like fashion. To this total capital cost of £1,152,000 would be added a total annual running cost for radio and television of £265,000.- The House of Lords experiment also emphasized the extremely high cost of televising proceedings, and it was estimated, for instance, that to install remote-control miniaturized plumbicon cameras in the penelling (the ideal thing to do) would cost £360,000.5 Opponents further assert that even if costs could be met, the money could be better spent elsewhere and that other more urgent priorities have a far greater claim on whatever revenue is available. Some peers and Members of Parliament are even saying that no more should be spent on experimentation. Advocates can only assert that the benefits to be derived from electronic reporting are worth the cost.
3 Op. cit., pp. xvil-xvili, * Ibid., pp. xv-xvii. 6 Parliamentary Debates (House of Lords), Vol. 300, col, 1081.
(11) DESIRABILITY Predicting is always hazardous. But not predicting can be even more dangerous. As many observers have pointed out, once the cameras are in, it is very unlikely that they will ever leave, just as it would be unthinkable to remove the reporters from their galleries. So if an abundance of serious ill effects are likely to occur, they ought to be fully analysed before the cameras get in. On the other hand, if & large number of favourable effects seem to be in the offing, then presumably cameras should be let in without further delay. Either way, focusing on the probable effects becomes a crucial operation. The experiments which have been held and the testimony gathered have resulted in the identification of a number of issues.
First, advocates contend that democracy will be strengthened, for the general electorate will become better informed about, and will be brought closer to, their representatives and the machinery of government. Televising proceedings will enable many more citizens to see what now only a handful can see, and then only after the nuisance of queueing for a long time or getting tickets from an MP.
The bond between the electorate and the elected will be strengthened, interest in Parliament stimulated, and commitment to democracy deepened. People have a right to see their Government in action, so the argument goes, and television permits that right to be realized more fully than would any other form of reporting.
Now that the public has seen on television the ceremonial pomp of the Opening of Parliament, it is in danger of being misled, unless also shown the less glamorous but more relevant and realistic day-to-day proceedings. Critics point out that familiarity via television may well breed contempt for, or at least boredom and disillusionment with, the slow, uninteresting complicated workings of government. Thus, less rather than more devotion to democratic processes may result. Just how, critics ask, is democracy furthered by seeing elected officials "at work" in the debating Chamber? Should they also be seen "at work" in their office, in the library, in the bar, etc., wherever they are "working''? Since most of those who have spoken and written on the issue, both pro and con, have contended that the prime consideration should be whether or not parliamentary democracy will be advanced by televising proceedings, it becomes highly important how a person predicts on this point.
Second, advocates also emphasize that televising proceedings will bring a more healthy balance of power within the governmental structure, thus strengthening parliamentary democracy. It is contended that Parliament, by more public exposure, will win back some of the power now increasingly concentrated in the hands of the executive. (In the United States the increased use of television by President Nixon's Administration has prompted an increase in suggestions for Congress to be televised in order to redress the legislative-executive balance of power.) Many observers contend that too much power has gravitated to the Prime Minister and Cabinet, to the civil service, and to the party. This trend could be reversed or slowed, and more power and authority and prestige could be restored to Parliament, where it belongs. Thus, so the argument goes, it is in Parliament's own interests to allow its proceedings to be televised.
Third, it is contended that parliamentary democracy will be better served in that the growing disproportionate power of the television industry will be curbed, and Parliament will be more accurately, completely, and fairly portrayed. While it is admitted that most existing political television programmes on BBC and ITV are very good, they do leave something to be desired. Only a few Members of Parliament, usually frontbenchers, are interviewed, which means that backbenchers and minority views are seldom publicized, Ministers have to spend too much time at the television studios, and frequently are merely repeating what they have already said in the House. Occasionally a frontbencher scheduled to appear has to cancel at the last minute, and his replacement is ill-prepared and unauthoritative. The format of television programmes” means that Members of Parliament are quizzed by television journalists rather than by Members of the opposing political party, who are the individuals constitutionally responsible for questioning. Even television journalists urge that the democratic process will be better served if their power to select and quiz participants is supplemented by direct televising of the give-and-take of parliamentary debates. It obviously does not mean that existing politicial programmes need to be abolished. In fact, their appeal and usefulness may increase, for they can do important supplementary things, such as bring in scenes, locations, buildings, people not in Parliament, and can give background to issues, thus contributing a broader and clearer perspective.
Those in favour of televising proceedings contend that both Government and Opposition would be able to have their views expressed more coherently and