Would TV in the house be… unfair to MPs? 

6 June 2017 tbs.pm/12259

From the TVTimes for 14-20 August 1965

You watch a man talking on TV. How do you judge him — by listening to him, or by studying his face? Suppose you like what he says but not his looks, what then?

Tell me your answers. I want to hear them. So do 601 other men, as well as 28 women — your M.P.s.

We all are wondering how viewers will react if they see Parliament on television.

Before that can happen an awkward problem must be sorted out. For there are two ways of televising Parliament — and by “Parliament” I mean the House of Commons.

One way is to put it on TV from beginning to end: starting when the Speaker takes the chair at 2.30 p.m. and going on, non-stop, until it packs up at 10.30, or midnight, or (sometimes) next morning.

Few viewers, it is thought, would want all that. It would be too much, too long and too dull.

The alternative is a televised summary. Someone will select, from each day’s debates, those bits that he thinks will interest viewers, and lump them together in a brief programme.

But who is to do the selecting? No matter who he is, or how he does it. one thing is certain: he will have enormous power. For he will decide what image of Parliament shall be given to many millions of men and women.

He will try, of course, to be impartial. All the same, he is bound to be accused (politics being what they are) of bias, by one side or another.

Should we put power on that scale into the hands of any one man, or group of men? In my opinion, no.

If Parliament is to be televised, then I think there must be no monopoly about it. We ought to have rival reports on TV, just as we have rival reports in the newspapers.

This will ensure that rough justice is done all round — in the long run, anyhow.

Still, suppose we reach agreement about how and by whom Parliament shall be put on TV. Very well. Then we come to a whole cluster of conundrums.

To start with, what will we do about the procedure of Parliament — which strikes outsiders as meaningless mumbo-jumbo?

Parliament talks a private language. It does business in a lingo of its own. Debates take place in a verbal fog.

Fierce arguments may rage for hours on the motion “that this House do now adjourn,” or because the Chair says “amendment proposed that the words proposed to be left out stand part of the clause.”

No M.P. ever refers to another M.P. by name. He is forbidden to say “Mr. Jones.” He must say “the honourable Member for Slow on the Uptake” (or whatever Jones’s constituency is).

M.P.s have talked like this for centuries. The rules and customs of the House are Parliament’s pride and joy.

But what would viewers make of them? The ordinary viewer would be totally baffled.

If Parliament goes on TV, therefore, it will have to scrap its private language, and substitute plain English.

That might be a good thing. But do we want to get rid of historic traditions that are the essence of Parliament?

I decline to answer that question. I pass on to the next one. How will the presence of TV affect M.P.s?

As things are, they address each other. They speak, usually, in a semi-conversational fashion. They sprawl, yawn, put their feet up. They interrupt, mutter among themselves, shout, laugh, go to sleep.

But put telecameras in the Chamber. Then every M.P. will be on parade all the time. Millions of men and women will pick up every word, every whisper, every gesture, every facial expression.

Debates, therefore, will become very different from what they are now. Again, that might be a good thing. But…

Will the TV eavesdropper put a premium on M.P.s who are show-offs, poseurs, exhibitionists, ham actors?

Nobody knows. The only way to find out whether that will happen is to try it and see.

But one thing is certain. If Parliament goes on TV, it will then become subject to the basic law of TV — which is “The customer comes first.”

Parliament’s viewing audiences will be measured, night by night and week by week, in exactly the same way as the audiences for all other TV programmes.

The ratings will reveal how many people watch Parliament — and how many prefer to switch to something else.

Suppose Parliament slumps in the ratings. Suppose it fails to get into the Top 10 or the Top 20, or even the Top 100? What then?

Then, I think, M.P.s will get restive. So will their leaders. So will their supporters in the constituencies.

For politicians, like other people in the public eye, want to stay there. If they find they are slipping, they fret. They seek to recapture attention.

Consequently, a slump in the ratings will produce a demand for action. What sort of action? This is an easy question to answer.

Parliament will be told to buck up and win back its TV audiences, to arrange lively, dramatic debates with plenty of cut and thrust, to cut out the discussion of matters that may be important but that don’t interest viewers, and substitute topics chosen for their excitement value.

All this will be a bad thing for Parliament. Instead of doing its traditional job of scrutinising legislation — a job which is often very dull — the House of Commons will become audience-conscious.

Still, I see no escape from that. By putting Parliament on TV, we shall make Parliament a branch of show business.

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