§ That the First Report from the Select Committee on House of Commons (Services) (House of Commons Paper No. 142) be now considered.—[Mr. Edward Short.]
§ Report considered accordingly.
§ 8.0 p.m.
§ Mr. John Peyton (Yeovil)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not wish to waste the time of the House, but we have only two hours left for this debate. [HON. MEMBERS: "Outrageous."] If hon. Members opposite are to behave like that, we shall behave accordingly. We have two hours to debate an important issue. We wish to get on with the business now, but would the Leader of the House find time, if it is required, to continue the debate at a later stage so that all hon. Members who wish to speak may do so?
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Edward Short)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) knows quite well that there was an agreement made through the usual channels that the House should spend the first half of the day on agricultural tenancies and the second half on this subject. The fact that the previous debate ran over by an hour is no fault of mine or my hon. Friends. We shall see how we get on.
§ Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I understood that the Leader of the House was responding to the point of order raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton). I had hoped to put to the Lord President, on a point of order, further words in support of my right hon. Friend. I was Deputy Chairman of the Select Committee whose Report is to be considered and I have not yet had the opportunity of discussing with the Lord President the timing of the debate. I was abroad last week and have only just returned.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)
Order. That is not a point of order or a matter for the Chair.
§ Mr. Peyton
I thought the right hon. Gentlman was addressing the House on a point of order. He has just said that there was a gentleman's agreement between the two sides. There was not. There was quite a long statement at the beginning of business which held up the start of the last debate. Some of my hon. Friends were incensed and upset at the reply received from the Parliamentary Secretary. When the Leader of the House gets up in this angry way, he is asking for very much sharper reaction from this side of the House. If we had conducted ourselves like that when we were in Government, we should have had a very much sharper and ill-tempered reaction from hon. Members on the Opposition Benches than the right hon. Gentleman is getting now.
§ 8.10 p.m.
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Edward Short)
I beg to move,That this House supports the proposal that the public sound broadcasting of its proceedings should be arranged on a permanent basis.First, I must tell the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) that I am not in the least angry with him.
On 24th February last year, we passed a Resolution by a large majority in favour of an experiment in the public sound broadcasting of our proceedings. The experiment took place over four weeks last June and July. The Report which we are considering today is a Report by the Services Committee of the House on that experiment.
The view of the Services Committee is that the experiment was a success. While the Report draws attention to a number of problems covering such matters as accommodation, privilege, and copyright, which will need to be resolved before a permanent system of broadcasting is introduced, the Services Committee does not consider that any of these problems need be insoluble.
The question before the House today, therefore, is whether, in the light of this Report, and our practical experience of the experiment, we should now agree in principle that the sound broadcasting of 125 our proceedings should be arranged on a permanent basis.
The question of whether or not Parliament should be broadcast, on sound or on television, has been discussed so many times in the past 10 years that I do not propose to rehearse the arguments yet again. There is, however, one new consideration. As a result of the experiment, we have at last largely moved away from conjecture and suppositions towards ascertained facts. For example, we can now judge from the experiment, how far, if at all, proceedings and behaviour in the Chamber were affected by the fact that they were being broadcast on radio, and, if they were affected, whether this was for the good of Parliament or otherwise. Equally, we now have a much clearer idea of what the extent of public interest in the sound broadcasting of our proceedings is likely to be.
We have also been able to judge for ourselves over the four-week period whether the selection of extracts from a sound record of our proceedings can maintain due balance and impartiality. And, of course, for the broadcasting Authorities there has been the benefit of first-hand practical experience of the technical problems involved. In all these matters this Report, and the evidence attached, provides a valuable new framework of fact.
It is also interesting to reflect on the wide variety of subjects covered during the experiment. Quite naturally, the Prime Minister's Question Time received wide publicity—indeed this period is regarded by many people as the highlight of our parliamentary week. Also included in live broadcasts were statements by the Prime Minister on the referendum result; by the Foreign Secretary on the situation in Uganda; and the Chancellor outlining the Government's measures to curb inflation. These were important statements not only at home but also abroad, where there was most certainly a lot of interest.
But, on the other hand, more localised matters were covered. Recorded extracts on such subjects as the proposed closure of a local social security office, soccer violence, and anxieties about the sale of crossbows to the young were also used in broadcasts and there were many other issues of particular interest to the local 126 broadcasting stations. Parliament is concerned with a wide variety of matters affecting the life our our people, and this was reflected in the broadcasts.
Visitors to the House are almost invariably impressed with the unique intimate debating atmosphere in the Chamber—on the one hand, the oratory and the repartee; on the other, the somewhat noisy exchanges across the Floor—and I believe that this special House of Commons atmosphere came across to listeners.
I should like to say a few words about one or two of the factual issues which the Report has brought out, and which are, I think, of importance and relevance to the issue which the House now has to decide. The first is the evidence in the Report, of the extent of public interest in the experiment.
For those who favour the broadcasting of our proceedings it would, I suppose, be one of the principal aims of the broadcasts to widen public interest in what goes on here; to broaden the base of informed public opinion about parliamentary matters; and generally to sustain and stimulate interest in what Parliament stands for. The evidence in the Report of the extent of public interest in the experiment is, therefore, I suggest, one of its major aspects.
Both the BBC and the B3A speak favourably in their evidence of the public's response to the broadcasts. The Director of Radio, IBA, for example, referring to the audience research which the Authority undertook, said that on the basis of what he described asA modest but serious piece of research",there had beenA very favourable response indeed",and that a substantial majority of those asked had wanted the broadcasts continued. The BBC reported that 76 per cent. of their listening panel considered that the broadcasts of excerpts from Parliament on radio should continue.
More particularly, according to the BBC's evidence, the live broadcasts of Question Time attracted about four times the normal radio audience at that time, and that at the end of the experiment this listening figure was still just under 1½ million. The average daily audience for "Yesterday in Parliament", with recorded 127 sound extracts from proceedings, rose by about 300,000.
The independent companies found that they had made rather more use of parliamentary material in their broadcasts than they had anticipated before the experiment began. And account has also to be taken of the substantial use made of this material in external services and by overseas radio. I must say that I find all this a fairly convincing indication of a widespread public interest.
As a result of the experiment, we all now have a much clearer idea of what the form and content of any permanent system of sound broadcasting should be. Clearly, occasional debates would be broadcast in their entirety. Also there would be some coverage of Committees. For the most part, however, the sound broadcasting of our proceedings would be likely to take the form of extracts from the sound record of proceedings on the Floor, either put together as summaries of a debate or of a parliamentary day, or inserted in national and local news and current affairs programmes. In other words, both broadcasting Authorities would like any permanent pattern to follow, broadly speaking, the pattern adopted during the experiment. It is also of interest to note in passing that during the month's experiment 353 Members of Parliament were heard on BBC alone.
Thirdly, I would draw the attention of the House to the passages in the Report dealing with the question of the financing of any permanent sound broadcasting of our proceedings. Here, there is some difference of view between the broadcasting authorities.
The BBC, for its part, would wish to meet the cost of mounting a permanent operation from Westminster from its licence revenues. The BBC estimates the capital cost involved, excluding any installation in Committee Rooms, at about £310,000, and operating costs at about another £275,000 a year. This assumes that charges for rent and rates, power and fight supplies and building maintenance costs would be met by the House.
The Independent Broadcasting Authority, on the other hand, takes the view that a parliamentary sound unit, a kind of "radio Hansard", should be established to provide a live feed for the broadcasters. 128 Whilst the independent companies would be willing to meet the ongoing editorial costs involved in their broadcasts of proceedings, they consider that whatever additional capital equipment—apart from equipment in the House—is required which is directly attributable to the broadcasting of Parliament should be provided at parliamentary expense.
These are important differences of view, with significant implications for public expenditure, particularly in the proposal for a House broadcasting unit. There are similar public expenditure implications in any decision as to the size and location of the additional accommodation that would be required for permanent broadcasts. As the Select Committee points out in its Report, the cost will obviously be an important factor in any consideration of the form which permanent broadcasting should take.
There is also outstanding the question whether any permanent sound broadcasting of parliamentary proceedings should cover both Houses. I have previously indicated to the House, if both Houses agree in principle—as I invite the House to do tonight—that permanent sound broadcasting is desirable, that I would see the next step to be the early establishment of a joint Committee to consider the details of a permanent system. The Joint Committee would consider, among other matters, the important issues raised in this Report regarding costs, accommodation and questions of Privilege and copyright. The Government will, of course, do all they can to assist the Joint Committee in these matters.
While the decision to be taken today, however, is not a Government but very much a House matter, nevertheless I commend the Report to the House. The question is whether the House shares the view of the Committee and the Government that the experiment was a success, and whether we should now be justified in agreeing in principle to the permanent sound broadcasting of our proceedings.
§ Mr. Neil Macfarlane (Sutton and Cheam)
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that an accurate reflection of parliamentary proceeding would equally indicate the necessity for emphasis on Committee proceedings and that, although the Report refers to the recommendations of each individual Chairman, Parliament 129 would be reflected more accurately by the broadcasting of interesting hearings in Standing Committees and Select Committees?
§ Mr. Short
There is a great deal in that point of view, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will express it if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
My own view is that it would greatly enhance the public interest in Parliament and, in an age when democracy is at risk probably as never before, we cannot neglect this opportunity to strengthen it.
I am sure that the House would wish me to express our appreciation to the members of the Broadcasting Sub-Committee and to the broadcasting Authorities for all the work which has gone into the experiment and this Report. The issue before us tonight is whether we agree with its conclusions.
§ 8.16 p.m.
§ Mr. John Peyton (Yeovil)
I start by referring to what I said a moment ago and expressing my regret, and, I am sure, that of my hon. Friends, that the Government are apparently content to allow the debate on this important matter to be compressed within less than two hours.
I wish to say a word of thanks to the Select Committee for the way in which it has handled this matter, secondly, to the staff of the House and, thirdly, to the broadcasting authorities. All three made a useful and significant contribution to the success of the experiment and we are indebted to them. It was conducted in an atmosphere of cordiality and cooperation, which is not always to be taken for granted these days.
There can be little doubt about the balance of the verdict. The Select Committee, the majority of Members of Parliament, the broadcasters and the public on balance reacted favourably to the experiment, despite its novelty and the fact that during the currency of an experiment necessarily the equipment is not of such a high standard as it would be if broadcasting were on a more permanent basis. It would be difficult for us to backtrack unless we had very good reasons for doing so.
There are, however, a number of objections which have been voiced and should receive careful consideration, and several 130 other points which should be noted for subsequent examination after the debate is over.
First, objections were taken to what I can only politely call the "noises off". These sounds, which are familiar and respectable to us who regularly take part in the proceedings of the House, were neither familiar nor respectable to those who were hearing but not seeing our proceedings, many of whom thought that they were more akin to the farmyard than to democratic discussion. Be that as it may, I hope that this objection will be carefully considered by those with technical qualifications to do so with a view to suppressing the more unpleasant interventions, so that the more sensitive people listening to our proceedings will not find them too offensive.
Secondly, there is the question of unfair shares. I realise that if on every occasion we raise the question of fairness we shall make little progress, and no experiment will ever get off the ground. It must be realised that Ministers, in enjoying the last word in this place as they always do, have a very great privilege, and to that is added the fact that Ministers also get the lion's share of the time. This means that we are up against a real problem. With that marvellous optimism which sometimes sweeps him away and quite overwhelms him, the Leader of the House just referred to Prime Minister's Question Time as the highlight of our parliamentary week. I do not think that everyone would go along with that one. The statistics show that the Prime Minister had what is happily referred to as "32 minutes of actuality". Actuality can mean different things on different occasions, but that is just about the last noun I would have chosen to describe the Prime Minister's misty manoeuvrings during his answering session. Anyhow, 32 minutes of actuality, if we are compelled to use that phrase, is far too much. The question of fair shares should be considered in the light of experience.
The third real objection which we must consider seriously is the intrusion upon the very limited space which is available in the Palace. During the experiment—and I understand the reasons for it—the BBC found it necessary to have a large number of people here. I believe that largely they were here for training 131 purposes. In drawing up the permanent arrangements very careful attention will have to be given to seeing that no commitment is made which would involve the use of space which Parliament cannot afford to surrender. It is most important that these commitments should be settled now rather than later, because if they come later it will only mean either that we have gone too far down the road to retire or, alternatively, that we are hazarding the whole operation.
I stress that I am speaking for myself rather than for my colleagues, but I believe that we would be right to accept the motion. If we did so, a Committee would then surely have to be established—if another place wishes to come into the picture it would have to be a Joint Committee—to consider the administrative arrangements, as has been suggested by the Select Committee. There should also be a parliamentary authority to look after the technical side of the matter. That Joint Committee should at an early date consider the views and objections which have been expressed in the debate tonight, and should have in mind any other points which require settlement before we commit ourselves to the expenditure and to the other steps which are necessary to bring broadcasting permanently into our scene.
There is the question of cost. Before any substantial sums are expended, Parliament should know clearly who will pay for what and the total amount involved. We should not be in too much of a hurry to confer upon the nation yet one more blessing which it may not want if the price is excessive. The question of cost should be inquired into and cleared up before we go any further and before practical steps are taken.
I come, secondly, to the control arrangements. There is the question of copyright, access and use. I take it that the use of the resultant tapes would be confined to news, current affairs and educational programmes, but even those would have to be fairly closely defined in order to avoid misunderstandings, It will be far from easy for an ancient institution of this kind to control and accommodate this highly technical operation. The difficulties must be recognised and met now, and not just left in the hope that they will come out in the 132 wash, which is our national habit in approaching far too many of our problems.
There is then the question of privilege and contempt. If there is one subject on which Parliament is always in danger of making an ass of itself it is this one. We huff and puff a good deal about the question of privilege and about what is or is not a contempt of Parliament, but we have very little idea of how to meet a situation when someone is in breach of privilege or in contempt of this House. Before we start laying down the law we should get clear what it is and exactly what steps we could and would take to enforce it.
We then come to the Committees. I believe that we should sort out the House first and get that side of the matter working properly before we attempt to go on to include in broadcasts the proceedings of Committees. I have long regarded Standing Committee proceedings as being easily the weakest part of the parliamentary framework. I cannot imagine that Parliament would be wise to take the risk of broadcasting Standing Committee proceedings to the nation, nor can I imagine that the public would be willing for very long to listen to such proceedings. They would be either a matter of profound dullness or, alternatively, one of lasting disillusion at our proceedings. I hope, therefore, that there will be no question of our broadcasting now—or, perhaps, ever—the proceedings of Standing Committees as at present constituted.
Select Committees are of varying importance. A great deal of the evidence is confidential. We should also have regard for experience in America, where there have been some serious problems. It may be good theatre to televise Select Committees of Parliament or of Congress, but it seems to be likely to lead to bad government. So I hope that we will approach the question of televising Committees with great prudence.
§ Mr. Robert Cooke
Would my right hon. Friend consider the point that some Ministers are very difficult to cross-examine in the House but that they have occasionally and recently been hauled effectively before Select Committees, where interesting facts have been discovered? I hope that he will not turn down the proposition that that kind of parliamentary activity should be given 133 as much prominence as the highlight of parliamentary life to which the Lord President referred.
§ Mr. Peyton
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has given a great deal of serious thought to these problems. I am sure that what he says should be weighed carefully. But I am expressing a general preference for taking one step at a time, for starting with broadcasting the proceedings of the House itself before we go on to deal with Select Committees. However, I appreciate that, if a Select Committee could extract interesting answers from Ministers, that might make the whole procedure worth while.
My fourth point is the need for clear rules for advertising. The Independent Broadcasting Authority accepts the need for such rules and it is at least as much in its interests as in the interests of Parliament that clear rules should be established.
Finally, I would want it to be clear that we are now considering only sound broadcasting and that this decision and any action which might flow from it should neither commit us to nor inhibit us from making further decisions about television in future.
§ Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Thornaby)
Would the right hon. Gentleman not agree that the Committee which may be set up if we decide to introduce sound broadcasting should keep an eye on the future and on the possibility of television being introduced into the Chamber?
§ Mr. Peyton
I do not at all agree with the hon. Member. The Committee should have absolutely clear terms of reference. The question of television is a new issue, quite extraneous to the one that we are discussing tonight. I mention it only because I am anxious that the decision that we are now making should neither inhibit us from making another in the future nor commit us to making it.
§ Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Does he endorse, as the Committee implicitly has done in the Report, the use of the sound tape as illustrative material on television newscasts, which is the one slight exception to that separation?
§ Mr. Peyton
I am obliged. I know that it was. I think that by common consent it greatly enhanced the value of television news broadcasts, and I can see absolutely no objection to its use being continued indefinitely. I am talking about the quite different operation which would be involved in televising proceedings here, not use being made of the sound recordings.
We should be wrong to make further progress with this matter after the decision has been reached tonight till that Committee has been set up, it has had a chance to report in detail to the House and the House has had a chance to consider its report.
Parliament is an institution of immense importance—perhaps never more so than in this fast-moving period of history. It is important that we should not erect barriers between ourselves and the public. It would be unrealistic to expect people to listen with sympathy and understanding to the complaint that we are so fond of making—that we are ignored and bypassed—if then we proceed to cut ourselves off from a medium which I believe has shown, during a brief experiment, that it can help to forward the cause of understanding.
§ 8.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Ben Ford (Bradford, North)
It was both an honour and an interesting experience to have chaired the Broadcasting Sub-Committee responsible for the Report before the House. I have no doubt that the experiment made a great impact not only at home but, most importantly, abroad, for there are many countries throughout the world where our parliamentary system is still highly regarded and, indeed, envied. I hope that hon. Members will read carefully the BBC memorandum printed on page 16 of the Report, in paragraph 38, entitled, "External Services". Interested as I am in foreign affairs, the value of this aspect alone would justify permanent broadcasting. It is an interesting statistic that during the course of 24 hours the BBC broadcasts 250 news bulletins in 40 languages.
I hope that the House will agree to accept the motion, because to close the communications gap between Parliament and people will, more than anything else, reverse the trend towards cynicism that 135 characterises the attitude of many in our community at present.
The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) mentioned the question of "noises off". I am sure that this matter can be dealt with by the use of appropriate technical equipment, such as directional microphones, when that will be adequately controlled. In passing, the right hon. Gentleman also mentioned the use of space in the precincts of the Palace of Westminster. I assure him that the greatest demand for space, which is for room for editorial matters, is not necessarily required to be within the precincts of the House. His hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Cooke) the Chairman of the Accommodation and Administration Sub-Committee, may be able to assist him in this matter later.
§ Mr. Robert Cooke
I am sure that the Lord President will not mind being reminded that if the Government would make a decision about the Bridge Street site and the use of some of the buildings there, we should be able to move more quickly in this matter. I am sure that the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Ford) will agree with me on that matter.
§ Mr. Ford
I would not dissent from that view.
Advanced industrial societies depend upon speed of communication, and although in recent years what we call the media have grown rapidly and enlarged the whole public forum, the rôle of the Member of Parliament in the communication process between the legislative body and those it represents has changed, and in this context diminished. Who, in constituencies, are now prepared to gather at weekend political meetings to listen to speeches about parliamentary affairs when night after night panels of experts are to be seen and heard dissecting current events, and when newsreaders give out news based upon ministerial handouts and briefings unseen and unheard by most Members of Parliament?
Permanent broadcasting from the House will help to restore to the Member of Parliament his rôle as a prime link between the institution and the people he represents, thus raising the dignity of both Member and Parliament.
136 I do not favour the introduction of television into the Chamber. I must admit that at first I thought that the only fair way of broadcasting would be via a special sound channel carrying the whole of the proceedings, but experience derived from the experiment has convinced me that it is perfectly possible for edited broadcasts to take place on a fair and reasonable basis. Returning to the subject of television, I suggest that the object of broadcasting is to convey information and not to entertain. It is well known that if the eye is actively engaged it tends to reduce the concentration of the mind upon the information being conveyed.
In its Report the Committee has drawn attention to several matters that will require to be considered prior to the actual commencement of broadcasting. Discussion of these need not delay the decision in principle which hon. Members are being requested to make today and which will enable the authorities to commence work on arranging the accommodation and certain technical matters, as well as enabling the broadcasting authorities to make their arrangements with regard to staffing, installation of equipment, and so on.
It now seems inevitable that it will be necessary for this House and another place to form a Joint Committee to consider permanent arrangements for broadcasting, following the expression of a keen desire from the other place to be included. The fact that two Houses are broadcast will make little difference to the editorial accommodation required by the broadcasting authorities, but it renders it all the more essential that a parliamentary broadcasting unit should be set up producing the prime output for the broadcasting authorities and also being responsible for recordings of proceedings to be retained for archival purposes.
I do not visualise much difficulty coming from the other place in these matters, and we would have the advantage of having both the prime signal and a full sound record under parliamentary control. This seems doubly desirable in the operation of copyright, where it will be necessary to have a clean recording available for reference. The question of copyright will no doubt cause more than a little discussion before a 137 modus operandi is agreed: for instance, in whom should copyright be vested?
Regarding accommodation for commentators, I have been convinced by the evidence that it would be most advantageous both to the broadcasters and to the House itself for the commentary positions to be situated at Member level. I therefore support the proposal that the commentary box should be constructed in the south-west corner of the Chamber.
May I say how much I look forward to the broadcasting of Committee proceedings? We in the House know that parliamentary reputations are made and lost in Committee, but up until the present this has always been an "in-House" affair—something parliamentarians have known but that rarely reaches the public. Broadcasting therefore opens up the opportunity for acquainting the electorate of the hard work and many hours spent in Committees which are the backbone of the country's legislative system.
The broadcasting authorities in particular have been very helpful in supplying memoranda and reports, and my Sub-Committee was most grateful for the assistance of a number of distinguished persons who attended to give evidence. Both the British Broadcasting Corporation and Independent Radio News were able to impart their own distinctive cachet to their parliamentary broadcasts, but we noted and appreciated the considerable degree of co-operation between these two bodies, whose approach was highly professional.
Finally, I urge colleagues to support the motion before the House to enable us to get on with the work I mentioned earlier. If the House agrees to the motion, it may well be possible to begin broadcasting on a permanent basis after the Summer Recess, thus commencing an era of renewed public confidence in our parliamentary institutions.
§ 8.42 p.m.
§ Mr. John Moore (Croydon, Central)
I hesitate to inject a discordant note into the debate, but I wish to make two important points. My first point is a totally non-party one. Back Benchers are sometimes in great difficulty. Today, they have one and a half hours to discuss what is probably one of the most important decisions of principle that we could make 138 this year in relation to the working of the House of Commons and its relationship with the public. This is an appalling situation. I accept that it has nothing to do with the Government Front Bench.
However, I find it peculiar that every time Back Benchers seek to intervene they are constantly told "No time, no time". This is a travesty of what should be the proper working of the House, but I accept that the Leader of the House is not to blame.
§ Mr. Edward Short
When the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) referred to this matter earlier, I said that we would see how we got on. If at 10 o'clock many hon. Members still wish to speak, I shall certainly be prepared to seek to adjourn the debate and find more time. I realise that the debate is important.
§ Mr. Moore
I greatly appreciate that. If a discordant note produces that result, clearly it should be injected into our proceedings more frequently.
Secondly, this is a subject on which we are witnessing a constant ego message, as it were, between the two Front Benches. This is a matter that should cause us concern. We should be greatly worried whenever there is such unanimity between those who appear on the two Front Benches.
I have read the Report in considerable detail, and I am in great doubt about the validity of the evidence. I ask hon. Members to scrutinise it in greater detail. I do not seek to refer in any way derogatively to the admirable chairmanship of the Sub-Committee, or to its work. However, we are asked to decide this issue following five short Sub-Committee meetings. No doubt they were five very thorough meetings. Evidence was supplied by the media. Strange as it may seem, the media think that it is wise that we should accept their own advertisement of their ability to perform. I would find it peculiar if the media did anything other than recommend a continuation of their own activity.
§ Mr. William Molloy (Ealing, North)
I think that on reflection the hon. Gentleman will agree that the documents we have before us for discussion form only a small, but essential, proportion of the millions of words that have been written 139 over the past 15 years on the subject of broadcasting the proceedings of the House of Commons.
§ Mr. Moore
I hesitate to prolong the debate, but we are dealing with the specifics of the Report. I accept that there has been considerable debate over many years. The Leader of the House clearly indicated, as the Report says, that the Committeereceived evidence from those principally involved in the experimentand had no doubt that their view demonstrated a need for the continuation of the experiment. At present we are discussing that, and that alone.
In the long run I am seriously concerned about the democratic processes. I came to this House believing fundamentally in sound broadcasting and television. After being a Member of the House for one year, I decided that the television experiment was something for which I could not vote. However, I wanted the sound experiment. Now, with great seriousness, I propose to vote against the principle of its continuation. I do so because we are in grave danger of confusing the possibilities of long-term democratic improvement of the stature of this place and its communication with the outside world with what we can only call, in modern terms, the vaudeville process.
I shall concentrate on the three basic effects that this experiment, if made permanently in an edited version—that is the key to the whole matter—will have on the media, Members of Parliament and Parliament as an institution.
First, let me deal with the media. There is great cause for concern that the appearance of power that we allow the media to think they will be gaining from this is merely a delusion which will trap the media into the same dangerous relationship which it currently has with the Executive, whichever party is in power. I shall try to illustrate this in two ways. First, those who have studied the Select Committee's Report will know what I am talking about. In my view this will happen whichever party is in power. Politically, this is an entirely irrelevant matter. The table to which I am referring appears on page 25. It shows that the Ministers received 42.2 per cent. of the time. Clearly 140 that is something that will continue. There is no way in which Ministers can avoid making statements when pressed by opposition, from whichever side, and no way in which they can avoid dominating Question Time, certainly not with their expert ministerial advisers. We cannot offset that in any way. It is a fact that will come out at permanent broadcasting.
§ Mr. Robert Cooke
I do not know whether my hon. Friend has looked at the record. I joined this House 19 years ago this very night. At that time one could put three Oral Questions at Question Time. The Prime Minister came on at Question No. 45 and that Question was nearly always reached. The deterioration of our processes has brought about the situation to which my hon. Friend refers.
§ Mr. Moore
I take the point. Already we can return power or parliamentary attention to the Chamber by certain processes relating specifically to what we are seeking to do tonight. I give as an example the White Paper on Public Expenditure to 1978–80. I asked in a Written Question, which I am sure all hon. Members have diligently read in Hansard of 26th February, how many copies of the Public Expenditure White Paper went to the media and when, in comparison with its receipt by Members of Parliament. I was told, on 26th February, that 48 hours before Members of Parliament received copies of the Public Expenditure White Paper not only did one or two go to very important key Lobby journalists, but 265 copies went to the media.
What on earth is happening? What is this all about? I attempted to find out. Again, this is not something done only by the present Government. It was referred to as "a long-standing" parliamentary practice. It is done by all Executives, whichever party is in power. I pursued the matter a little further, but so far I have been able to obtain the names of only 70 out of the 265 newspapers which received advance copies of the Public Expenditure White Paper.
I refer here to the Written Answer given to me on 3rd March, and I find the names of 70 newspapers—these key journals of the world which need to know in advance of Members of Parliament what we are to discuss. I see that copies went to the 141 Koelische Rundschau, the Stuttgarter Zeitung, the Frankfurter Allgemeine, and to the Bund economic correspondent in Berne, who obviously needed to know two days in advance of our discussions in the Chamber.
That is the key. I accept that our debate on public expenditure has not yet taken place, but on the day when the White Paper appeared in the Vote Office Members of Parliament were expected to appear on radio and television throughout the country and debate these matters in detail with other people who had received the information 48 hours in advance. I hear mutterings from the Back Benches inquiring what this has to do with what we are discussing now. It is related directly to it. It has to do with editorialising and the creation of an intimate duopoly of interest between the Executive in office and the media. That kind of intimate link and relationship allows the media to be used. That is the tragedy of what we are talking about now. It allows the media to be used, and it is now proposed to create a situation in which those same media will allow themselves to be used again.
We ought to know what the parliamentary record suggests. It is rather difficult to find rules governing these things, but we ought to look into precedent when considering the principle put before us tonight. It was hard to find, but I was able to establish from a most interesting discussion in 1942, following the early release of the Beveridge Report, between the present Lord Avon and the late Aneurin Bevan, that in 1927 Mr. Speaker Whitley made a statement which most Members of Parliament, would, I imagine, wish still to be followed as the practice regarding early release of parliamentary papers. He said:I think it is in the interests of the House that I should say—as has been said from this Chair many times before—that it is most desirable that these papers which are presented by Command to Parliament should be in the hands of the House at least at the same time as they appear in the Press. I am saying that without any knowledge of the methods by which these papers have been obtained. There have been mistakes in times gone by … and the House of Commons has always been jealous of its own rights. I think it is right that I should reaffirm them."—[Official Report, 9th March 1927; Vol. 203, c. 1240.]I am saying, in the first place, that the media themselves become part and 142 parcel of the Executive's methods, whichever Government may be in office. In the second place, I ask hon. Members to study in detail the particular period of the experiment. I do not suggest that many Members of Parliament were not happy to hear themselves. But how, and in what manner?—and what will be the nature and character of the comments which Members of Parliament feel it necessary to make in order to appear on the proposed edited channel? It will change the nature of the beasts who perform already and the nature of the circus rules in relation to the very limited opportunity for parliamentary performance. In the longer term, indeed, I fear that it might in a sense change the nature of the selection process. I can well imagine that constituency associations might consider it necessary to concern themselves with the public name and ability of candidates or the number of times their Members of Parliament appeared on the radio channel. In my view, this has deep implications for the longer term and ought to give us cause for anxiety.
The experiment was handled, I acknowledge, modestly, intelligently and rationally, but it was an experiment. What happens when we are no longer in the experimental phase? What will follow a vote in principle tonight? What happens when, instead of recognising that there are times when Parliament can be entertaining, Parliament joins, as it must, that part the media concerned with the entertainment process, that being perfectly valid from the point of view of the media, it being part and parcel of their communication? With respect, that is not what Parliament should be about. Ultimately, this will not lead to a return of public attention and to greater stature for the Chamber. It will lead to power and control going further into the editor's cutting room, and that is not what we should seek to do when we try to raise the stature of Parliament.
I could support a measure which allowed complete radio broadcasting of the whole process, without any editing of any kind. That I could endorse, but not the motion before us tonight which, if we accept it in principle, will lead to an edited version which will, I am sure, ultimately negate our whole structure, just as the media-Executive relationship is tending to do today.
§ 8.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Colin Jackson (Brighouse and Spenborough)
It is some eleven years since, on a Friday afternoon, I spoke in favour of televising the proceedings in this Chamber. On that occasion we were concerned with more esoteric questions, such as the level at which we ought to look when we spoke, how we sat and how our demeanour showed itself to the camera.
I recall that in another debate when we discussed this matter of televising the proceedings, the proposal was lost first because the then Leader of the House was so persuasive and clear that he felt that as a good Oxford don he must argue the other side as well as in favour of televising, and he managed to defeat himself. Also on that occasion a Member from a Glasgow constituency had intended to travel by aeroplane to his constituency, but the fog came down and he came back, and travelled by British Rail. One of the things for which I have never forgiven British Rail is that he was able to catch the night sleeper, and as a result we lost by one vote.
I feel we have diminished in our courage since then. Last year, in a typically shilly-shally, half-hearted attitude—I would not say that we were cowardly, but we were nervous of the electorate—we decided to vote for radio broadcasting of the proceedings as against televising them. Perhaps we were a little nervous of our appearance—although this would not apply to myself!
We are trying to summon up courage to broadcast the proceedings by radio permanently. I have not the slightest doubt that, this time, we must at last put the radio side of the matter at rest, in the sense of confirming the continuous sound broadcasting of proceedings in this House. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Russell Kerr), who has Australian descent, is aware of the fascinating nature of Australian broadcasting which bores people to tears, but I do not think we shall be in danger of that situation.
I should like to give some impression of the experiment which was conducted on Manchester Radio. I thought that some senior citizens might have been put 144 off by the extemporaneous remarks of some of the more distinguished Members of this House. In fact, they were extremely interested. One lady said that she had cancelled her copy of The Times because she found that the BBC broadcasts were infinitely more interesting, more lively and cheaper. Some of my constituents have said "Why are you not like the hon. Member for Keighley who is always so interesting? Why are you not on the radio?"
I should like to emphasise the historical value of starting these broadcasts as soon as possible. Radio and televison broadcasting is part of the living history of our country. If we do not want to be seen or heard we ought to go into nunneries or monasteries. The schools and the universities are ready to receive the information which can be recorded by the parliamentary recording unit. When the Leader of the Opposition makes a brilliant bon mot about Russia we need to hear that on the radio. When the Prime Minister speaks, as he does briefly from time to time, we must have him recorded so that our sons, grandsons and granddaughters can hear him.
I know those who work in American educational television well. They would like copies of such material. We have a problem about the editing and control. There was an example last year when unauthorised use was made of a recording in a television programme. This material is a valuable part of social history. We are able to hear the Trades Union Congress Conference and every other kind of Press conference outside the House. We need to put into the can the proceedings of this House. We should not be afraid of doing this. I hope that we shall go ahead and have our proceedings broadcast and ultimately televised. Let us make a start this autumn with permanent broadcasting of our proceedings.
§ 9.3 p.m.
§ Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)
The Select Committee is to be commended not only on the breadth of its Report, which touched so succinctly upon the technical details, but on the reassuring way in which it dealt with all of the questions raised by the broadcasting of our proceedings. It was reassuring in terms of the statistical basis—albeit a narrow one but still fundamental in research terms—for 145 the number of people who were attracted to listen to our debates.
The Report of the Committee was reassuring in dealing with the success of the broadcasts locally and regionally. It was good to know that people felt, after hearing the broadcasts, that they knew more of what was going on in the Chamber and felt better informed about parliamentary matters and methods. Most reassuring of all, people wanted to hear more.
It was interesting to note the way in which sound broadcasts could be used within television broadcasting as well as on radio programmes at home and abroad. Unlike my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton), I believe that there was a good balance between Government and Opposition speakers. Equally, there was a good balance between Front and Back Benches. I was reassured by the tone and content of Back Bench speeches which I felt was a step in the direction of bringing Back Bench influence to bear on the Executive.
According to the Report, there seems to be little or no difficulty about copyright or Privilege and few, if any, difficulties about defining the use to which broadcast tapes could be used after they had been made.
It was reassuring to find that the BBC, looking at the cost on a permanent basis, was able to reduce the estimate that it gave before the experiment started. We must apply ourselves to considering the costs of permanent broadcasting of our proceedings. No one can sniff at cost figures of between £250,000 and £400,000 per annum in addition to the capital cost of installing the equipment. If we can thereby ensure a better understanding of Parliament, that will be money well spent for the sake not only of this House but of all the people who elected us.
I should like to make four comments on the question of cost. Certain costs might appear to be easily reducible when we consider the method of permanent broadcasting.
It is extremely important to enable editing to take place near Parliament so that the editing is as informed and sensitive as possible. Those two points are made in the Report. I should prefer the 146 establishment of a parliamentary unit akin to Hansard rather than give up the responsibility and place the power of recording what goes on here in the hands of the BBC or ITV.
There is a need to readjust the microphones in this Chamber so that some of the background noise can be eliminated to an even greater degree than was achieved in the experiment. The elimination of background noise was improved during the experiment.
The last point in this context is the even more pressing need to improve the acoustics in the Committee rooms so that those legislative workshops can be included in future sound broadcasting. I am delighted with the reassurance in the Report that the architecture and atmosphere of the Committee rooms will not have to be drastically changed to achieve that improvement.
The question remains, why broadcast at all? It is important to remind ourselves of the principles underlying the need to apply this far from new medium to the recording of our discourses. We have an increasingly informed electorate. Therefore, we must allow the listeners who tune in to radio—I hope also one day those who tune in to television—to judge for themselves the merits of the arguments put forward by Front Bench speakers on both sides of the House. In addition, we must give those listeners—and viewers eventually—the right to judge Back Benchers' contributions to our debates. That is surely a more meaningful way for people to understand our somewhat complicated process of law-making and political debating than to rely on the staged discussion within a studio which often gives a complete misrepresentation of politics.
I believe that by covering important debates we shall erode the present tendency to rule by studio and studio interviewer. We shall attract attention back to this Chamber by covering announcements made here rather than, as they often are now, within studios or Press conferences outside this Chamber. In the end we must remember that Parliament needs to communicate better from Westminster to the constituencies and the country generally. That contention was put succinctly in the Kilbrandon Report. It reported that people have tended to become disillusioned with government and that the general disenchantment may be 147 largely attributable to a failure in communication.
This is not a new problem. The presence of the Press in the House was once feared and fought against for many of the reasons that are now being put forward, many of the same arguments being employed. I believe that parliamentary government is feeling strains of a nature which have not been felt for centuries. If by introducing radio we can build bridges between ourselves and the outside world, and instil in people's minds a mite greater appreciation that Parliament is their institution where their battles are fought, we can reduce the strain to a considerable degree. I believe that that is the most important reason for supporting the motion.
§ 9.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)
The hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) was right in what he said. I understand rather than clash with his remarks. I shall take up later the discordant reserve expressed by the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Moore). The hon. Gentleman said that we are discussing a matter that has the possible making of a media conspiracy. He suggested that there is something implicit in the arrangements now before us which will entrench the power and protection of the media in the same way as the connivance, over the years, of Front Benches of both persuasions in issuing Press releases to newspapers a long time before Back Benchers have been able to see them.
I share the hon. Gentleman's indignation about the issuing, long before hon. Members see them, of Press digests and releases, and important documents of State, to newspapers, under the embargo that is usually but not always observed. However, that is quite a separate issue. We are discussing whether we can shift back power and influence into the Chamber and into Committees that are under our control, taking a degree of power from the selecting processes of the media.
In my time I have been a television producer. I have had to pick my cast, including Conservative Members. I can say to the hon. Member for Croydon, Central that I would have picked him 148 to put the point of view of his party. He has personality and he is handsome, self-assured and fluent. There is no reason for his not being part of the comparatively select band that puts the point of view of the parties in the television studios. As we have said time after time, that is where power and influence have gone—away from the House to the television studios and to the selecting media.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
Does my hon. Friend agree that those who receive advance copies of handouts may well have a pre-set idea of the course of a debate? Might that not influence the selection and the presentation of a broadcast?
§ Mr. Whitehead
I hope that hon. Members will not put up with that kind of treatment. I hope that they will not lie back supinely and accept that sort of treatment, as they allowed Press releases to be issued to outside bodies before the information was known within the Chamber. If hon. Members are to be heard by their constituents over the air in our exchanges, including the cardboard warfare of Question Time, it is crucial that we should be informed as quickly and as fully as the newspapers that report upon our proceedings. Only the other day an hon. Member, who is a friend of mine, was invited into the studio to defend the Government and to comment on a White Paper with only one hour's notice. The ink was not dry on the copy of the White Paper that he had received, whereas those holding the ring, setting the questions and doing the research had had the document for two days. That is what is wrong. If we are debating these matters when statements are made at Question Time and we have to respond to them, we shall no longer tolerate having our ignorance shown up because of the way the system has operated over the years.
§ Mr. John Moore
I agree with the point that the hon. Gentleman is developing—indeed, I made it myself—but does it not emphasise the crucial distinction between edited and totally open reporting of the House, which is the key distinction?
§ Mr. Whitehead
Yes, of course. That matter was raised about the presence of the Press listening to and recording our debates in 1771. But that reservation will 149 always be made as long as the media are looking at and have the opportunity to select and take for themselves extracts of our proceedings.
Paragraph 4 of the Report refers to a suggestion that I have always advanced—that there should be a broadcasting unit. That would maintain control over the initial recording in this place and in Committees, and would control the copyright and prevent misuse of our proceedings. That is what is needed. That is what would maintain, in the process of selection outside, the true editing of our debates—through Mr. Speaker in the Chair—both in its balance and in its selection, so that the accents of Barnsley and Bradford and Bolsover and other places so frequently heard in this House but not so frequently heard in the more articulate and balanced debates of the media, come through as thoroughly in the edited reports as they do here in this Chamber, through the editing, if one can call it so, by Mr. Speaker.
§ Sir Paul Bryan (Howden)
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that it should be in the hands of a parliamentary body?
§ Mr. Whitehead
I have never said that. I have said that in my judgment a parliamentary broadcast unit should be responsible for the recording of our proceedings on a master tape—as it is called here—and for the copyright in that master tape, which should be available to those outside the House but should be the property of the House in the use that it decides to make of it.
How was this experiment received outside? My right hon. Friend referred to the favourable response which the media themselves got in their sampling of opinion. I suggest that the samples showed that many of the audience, particularly in the IBA sample, actually wished to hear a live broadcast of our proceedings rather than just extracts.
§ Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)
My hon. Friend will no doubt be interested to know that my brother-in-law, who is a real Liverpool lad, said that this was the best thing since sliced bread.
§ Mr. Whitehead
I agree. We all have to take our sampling where we can. I would accept with approval my hon. Friend's brother-in-law against those who have been quoted elsewhere—in 150 The Times, for instance—as saying that we sounded like the Wheeltappers and Shunters' Social Club, or the gentlemen from the Isle of Wight who wrote to The Times saying that he had visited places whereordinary, humble, decent citizens gatherto find that the programme was greeted with an anger almost frightening in its intensity. That has not been the reception in my constituency. Many of us have found among our constituents qualified approval and a greater willingness to listen to this experiment and a desire that the experiment should go on, as expresesd in the opinion polls.
The reservations have already been expressed in the debate. There is, first, the reservation that what has come through in the experiment a little too much is Question Time and its inexplicable noises. That will happen as long as we have sound broadcasting only and not television. Question Time is the most difficult part of our proceedings to broadcast in a comprehensible manner. It is a matter that some future House will have to decide, in the context of whether it wishes its proceedings to be televised.
I would not be too depressed by the present situation. After all, Andrew Alexander, in the Daily Mail recently—he is not a writer with whom I normally agree, but I am glad to be able to pray him in aid now—wrote that we should not mock the noisy scenes because this… is not the Reichstag or the Supreme Soviet.That is right.
This is not a client assembly, or a rubber stamp. Incomprehensible though they may be sometimes to the outsider, these noises, which have for hundreds of years been heard by observers of our proceedings and in the last two centuries have been recorded by our friends in the Press Gallery—whom we are not allowed to mention—will be heard on the radio. They contribute to the fabric of our parliamentary democracy.
The only other point that I wish to make on the reservations is more serious. It brings me directly to the reason why we need a broadcasing unit and we need to watch carefully the question of copyright in our proceedings. I refer to the incident with the programme called "The 151 Nearly Man"—that account of the life and loves of a Labour Member of Parliament broadcast as a fictional drama by Granada Television.
When we were hearing evidence in the Select Committee, I asked the representatives of the BBC and the IBA whether they would put selected extracts on programmes that were not of the recognised informative type. They said that they would not. I said:You are saying you would restrict it"—that is, the use of the extracts—to news, current affairs and educational programmes?".The answer was "Yes". However, an extract from our proceedings was used in "The Nearly Man", with the accompanying remark from one of the fictional politicians, "We are not exactly 'Hancock's Half-Hour', are we?" No more we are, and no more we must be. Whatever we may sound like in the extracts of our proceedings in the proper context, it is wrong that material of that kind should be used out of context in fictional dramas.
A full apology was made to the Select Committee by the IBA and the programme company concerned, although Mr. David Plowright, of the programme company concerned, said that he had the feeling that it wasa serious and well-intentioned programme".It may have been, but serious and well-intentioned programmes are not necessarily the programmes of information, education and current affairs that were envisaged when we set up the experiment and had the four weeks of recordings.
Therefore, I hope that the Joint Committee—I do not believe that it must be a joint committee concerned with the affairs of the House of Lords, which may or may not exist in years to come—when it considers the way in which the output of the Palace of Westminster, Parliament and its Committees should be treated, will, most of all, consider how we should recruit a broadcasting unit with recognised broadcasters to work for it providing the "feed" for this Chamber.
There are three or four reasons why that is necessary. The first, which I have already mentioned, concerns the question of protecting our copyright. The second 152 is to co-ordinate the degree to which the proceedings of the Chamber as against those of Select Committees and Standing Committees are recorded and used. I do not share the view of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) that the proceedings of the Standing Committees are, in all circumstances, incomprehensible and will be treated with ridicule and contempt by the public. In future there may be more broadcasting authorities than there are now. If so, we should not regard ourselves as being bound to the existing duopoly, with their representatives in the little box doing their Burke and Hare act as they had to do in the restricted commentary position which was used for the experiment. We can distinguish between recording the proceedings and preparing the packages from which the various outlets will broadcast their extracts.
The recording of the proceedings should be under the authority of the House, through a broadcasting unit, and across the road, in Norman Shaw South, or in the Bridge Street building, we can put, as is done for the party conferences, the recording devices, editing crews and all the other people putting out the packages.
What we do tonight will, in a small but significant way, extend our democracy. The people in the IBA survey who had been in the Stranger's Gallery to hear debates and had also listened to the recordings, were in favour, by a majority of more than 90 per cent., of the experiment's becoming a permanent part of Parliament. I am sure they were right.
§ 9.25 p.m.
§ Mr. George Reid (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)
It is perhaps not surprising that when the House last considered the broadcasting of its proceedings, the experiment with radio coverage went through with an overwhelming majority while television coverage was rejected. I declare an interest in this matter, since I was employed, on and off-screen and microphone, as a broadcaster before coming to the House.
In February 1975, an erstwhile colleague of mine suggested that the vote on television coverage would be the first time that those hon. Members who were fortunate enough to be handsome would be 153 in the "Aye" Lobby and the rest would be in the "No" Lobby. I regard that as a joke in rather poor taste. It is significant of the frivolity with which some members of the media are prepared to treat our proceedings. That is the reason why I support a broadcasting unit providing a clean feed to the broadcasting organisations with the copyright of the taping vested in this House.
We are considering only radio coverage tonight, but we are paddling in the shallow end of the pool and, like any toddler, we shall ultimately be tempted into the deep water under the full gaze of electronic cameras and lights. Whatever decision we reach may ultimately lead to the lords of the media from Broadcasting House or the IBA Big Five being given access to the proceedings of this House. As a passionate believer in opening our proceedings to a wider public, I think the House should be cautious about taking that step. It is the thin end of the wedge and hon Members should recognise it as such. Since much more hangs on tonight's vote than mere radio coverage, it is prudent to establish a broadcasting unit analogous to Hansard, responsible to a Committee of this House.
It is important to get matters right first time before future broadcasters are tempted to snip here and cut there to show the socks of one hon. Member, the ankles of another or what one does with his keys during debates. It is only a matter of time before certain broadcasters attempt to insert radio tapes in television programmes dealing with the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher, the end of Harold Wilson, or the rebirth of Scotland. We have to be careful.
The broadcasting unit of the House should be able to recruit its own professional broadcasters to supervise the technical taping and editing and construction of debates. They will not be responsible for what goes out on individual channels.
The late Richard Crossman was an adventurous Leader of the House. He wrote in a Fabian pamphlet in 1972 about a "stage-by-stage operation" suggesting that radio coverage of the Chamber should come first, followed by an extension to another place and then into Committees. He considered that in this way broadcasters and the country would learn together how coverage should be 154 employed step by step. There would be an initial feed to the IBA and BBC followed by an extension to news agencies, clubs and universities and eventually, a tape library—social history on tape.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. William Price)
There has been a great deal of talk about the broadcasting unit. Some people seem to see it as a purely technical matter and other as some form of editorial control. The hon. Member used the phrase "supervising editing". What did he mean by that?
§ Mr. Reid
I meant that there should be a continuous feed of the proceedings in the Chamber to the broadcasting organisations but that it would be impossible in the early stages to provide coverage of every Committee in the House. I suggest that in those early stages, the unit should be responsible for deciding on Select Committee A against Select Committee B or Standing Committee X against Standing Committee Z.
Many hon. Members may wince at the ideal of any extraneous body being allowed to cut and trim proceedings, but it happens now in the Press Gallery, and with broadcasting we shall have a double editing process. You, Mr. Speaker, sit in the editorial chair and determine who is called to speak. While hon. Members may grumph and girn, one of the great virtues of this House is the absolute geographical, sociological and political balance achieved in speeches.
It would be healthy for the broadcasting organisations to have available to them a tape from the parliamentary broadcasting unit prepared by servants of the House and not by so-called lords of the media. At present too many hon. Members have permanent season tickets to programmes such as "The World at One", "PM Reports" or, north of the border, "Good Morning Scotland".
§ Sir P. Bryan
I am not clear what the unit would do with the tape if it did not edit it. Would it choose which voices were to be recorded?
§ Mr. Reid
It would provide a proper coverage of the House and proper directional microphones. If the coverage got 155 into the hands of the broadcasters they would be inclined to use sotto voce phrases here and there and also to pick and choose between Select Committees. I suggest that there should be a two-tier operation which provides a clean feed of proceedings on the Floor of the House as stage one and selection between Select Committee A and Select Committee B as stage two. It would provide a non-edited service from the Floor of the House and an edited service from Committees.
The reason I support the broadcasting of our proceedings is that so much decision-making has been removed in the public mind from the Floor of the House into a gladiatorial conflict in the television or radio studio. The three-minute broadcasting confrontation to a large extent has replaced the reasoned debate on the Floor of the House. As Nye Bevan said in 1959, it is a humiliating state of affairs in which Members are picked out to take part in broadcasting on the ipse dixit of Broadcasting House. To a large extent that is still true.
It is not true for the Bundestag in West Germany. Members of the Bundestag whose voices are heard on radio and whose faces appear on television are not the instant pundits, the buffoons or the flowery orators. They are, by and large, the ordinary Members of that House who know what they are talking about and who therefore strike a chord in their audience. I should like that to happen here. I want to see that reality reflected in British broadcasting rather than the present charade of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition locked in mortal conflict, or the curious view that Members of Parliament are somehow miracle workers able to release the Shrewsbury Two or effect some change in Department of Health and Social Security regulations at a stroke.
In general "Today in Parliament" and "Yesterday in Parliament" provide a superlative coverage of the issues before the House. As far as north of the border is concerned it seems that at times people involved in the editorial process in London are conditioned to believe that nothing happens north of the Watford Gap, and there are still too many references to the "three parties" when there 156 are more parties now represented in the House. Far too often the effect of secondary legislation on Scotland and the speeches of Scottish Members are ignored. It would, therefore, be appropriate for the parliamentary broadcasting unit to provide a clean feed direct to the Scottish broadcasting organisation.
In 1771 the House was still putting printers and publishers in the Tower, but in that year some Members of Parliament objected and laid down a motion which read:That the practice of letting the constituents know the parliamentary behaviour of their truest representatives was founded on the truest principles of the constitution.That still is true, and that is why in the interests of democracy I support the broadcasting of the proceedings of the House.
§ 9.33 p.m.
§ Mr. Ioan Evans (Aberdare)
I expected the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) to call for an independent broadcasting service for Scotland. He was unfair to the BBC and IBA in talking about quotations from speeches made by SNP Members. He is the only SNP Member in the House, so he is the only one likely to be quoted tonight on this issue. Hon. Members cannot be quoted if they are not here. The Liberals will not be quoted at all.
I am reminded of a paragraph in the Report of the debate which took place on 24th February. That was a very different debate from this debate. That was before the experiment. Now we have had the experiment and there seems to be a change of attitude towards broadcasting. The paragraph reads as follows:It is an astonishment to me that we should have talked about this matter for as long, I believe, as 15 years since the late Aneurin Bevan first mentioned it in a speech. It is an astonishment to me that it is 10 years since the Select Committee reported in favour, and it is an astonishment to me that we should have needed to discuss the matter some seven times, I believe, in the past decade or so. In my view, this place is the weaker if it is not fully reported to our fellow citizens, and reported in ways which they can plainly see, understand and feel involved in."—[Official Report, 24th February 1975; Vol. 887, c. 54.]I believe that I have been objective because that quotation was by the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) 157 who was Chairman of the 1922 Committee. I hope that since both the Front Benches have agreed that this Report should be accepted and that since it is a Report of the Services Committee representing hon. Members in all parts of the House, which was unanimous in bringing these recommendations before the House tonight—
§ Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)
My hon. Friend said that he had been objective. In referring to the objectivity of the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) my hon. Friend said that the right hon. Gentleman happened to be Chairman of the 1922 Committee. Is that evidence of objectivity?
§ Mr. Robert Cooke
Even though the hon. Gentleman and I are Members of the Services Committee, I must point out his error in saying that the Services Committee had recommended that sound broadcasts should continue. The Report specifically did not say that. It said that by and large the experiment had been successful and that it was up to the House to come to a decision. The Select Committee made no recommendation on this matter.
§ Mr. Evans
The Report is before the House. The Services Committee took evidence and in the light of the experiment it stated that the experiment was successful. It is of course for the House to decide on the motion in the light of the all-party recommendation of the Services Committee.
I would support the televising of Parliament. We shall not be taking a major step this evening by agreeing to sound broadcasting, but it is at least a step in the right direction. Reports of the proceedings of the House in the national Press are inadequate, and the reports made in the "Today in Parliament" broadcasts do not give as good a picture of the proceedings as was given by the BBC in the experiment. Of course, during the experiment the BBC doubled the amount of time it devoted to these programmes.
158 The House of Commons should be a forum of Britain's respresentatives, and it should have its proceedings reported in a way which acknowledges that it is the political forum of this country. It could have a unifying effect between the people of Wales, Scotland and England if our proceedings could be recorded and eventually televised. The July experiment was successful. People who had reservations before the experiment and who were opposed to the idea of broadcasting the proceedings have come since to accept it.
As the Report says, the experiment was a national event which attracted wide interest throughout Britain. I do not believe that the unique character of this House suffered in any way from the broadcasts. I am certain that the attempt to give people more contact with the House was welcomed. Many constituents of mine said that they thought that that type of broadcast was more compelling than third person reports by journalists. The Select Committee said that it was justified in finding that the experiment was successful and that broadcasting could be arranged satisfactorily "on a permanent basis". That is the answer to the intervention of the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Cooke).
I hope that we can have a vote before Ten o'clock—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Very well. We have been talking about this matter for 15 years so no doubt we can spare another day on it.
In future, we should have not only edited versions of the proceedings but also perhaps broadcasts of special parliamentary occasions, such as the debate on the Queen's Speech, the Budget and the opening and closing speeches in major debates. I agree with the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) that at this stage we should not consider broadcasting Standing Committees, since many hon. Members themselves are bored with those proceedings. Perhaps they could be broadcast late at night in place of "A Book at Bedtime".
Among the problems mentioned is that of "noises off". However, if the microphone near the speaker were left on and the others switched off, the problem might be overcome.
§ Mr. Heffer
Would my hon. Friend not agree that this so-called problem arises 159 solely because hon. Members are not allowed to clap and that therefore the only way in which they can show support or disapproval is by making noises? If that is thoroughly explained to the people they will understand.
§ Mr. Evans
I take the point, except that applause like that which greeted my hon. Friend's intervention might prolong speeches.
One gained the impression from some of the broadcasts that one was listening to Covent Garden—the market place, not the opera house. If we televised our proceedings, that might be better, since then the noise-makers could be identified. There are problems with sound only when someone interjects in a serious speech and that inaudible interruption is followed by a roar of laughter.
The question of fair shares is a legitimate question.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)
Would my hon. Friend accept that some hon. Members do a great deal of work on Committees and in some circumstances are excluded from the Chamber? If the Committee proceedings were not even considered for broadcasting, that would be unfair and would lead to the representation only of those on the Floor of the House.
§ Mr. Evans
My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) always makes good interjections. I was about to deal with that matter. When we refer to the broadcasting of Parliament we must bear in mind what that means. At present there are not fair shares for parliamentarians. As my hon. Friend will agree, there are full-time Members of this House and part-time Members. Unfortunately in the broadcasting media it is not the full-time Members whom we hear on programmes such as "Panorama", "Tonight", "First Report", "World at One", and all the others.
If the proceedings of this House were broadcast, the broadcasts would be more representative. Instead of having a second-hand debate between two so-called parliamentary experts, who might rarely be seen in the precincts of the House, or having a ding-dong battle on a subject on "Tonight" or "Panorama", we would be having a debate on the Floor 160 of the House. That would enhance democracy.
It is possible that we shall have to adjourn the debate this evening. However, I hope that we shall not adjourn the decision to allow the people of Britain to listen to the broadcast proceedings of this House as well as to read them in the newspapers.
§ 9.46 p.m.
§ Mr. Julian Critchley (Aldershot)
I believe that the House of Commons should be heard but not seen. Members of Parliament are like actors and parsons—members of the performing arts. We are as good as our last speech. Some of us are even better.
The House of Commons has two functions. The first is to inform. It has to increase public awareness of political issues. Secondly, it has to entertain, because the House of Commons is a theatre, and at times, thanks to hon. Members opposite, a theatre of the absurd.
§ Mr. Heffer
Will the hon. Gentleman not agree that the main reason for Members being in this House—at least it should be—is to argue sincerely for their political point of view? That is why we are here it is that which we must put across to the public. It is nothing to do with entertainment. We are here to fight for our political point of view. The hon. Gentleman should not be here for entertainment.
§ Mr. Critchley
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) is clearly losing his sense of humour as the hour progresses.
Having whetted the public's appetite by the experiment that we conducted last summer, we should give them what they apparently want. We should welcome the wireless but be very wary of the box, because radio is more flexible and more discreet. Radio cannot show empty Benches, or somnolent Members of Parliament. Nor does the microphone attract the exhibitionist in the way that the camera does.
Those who opposed last year's experiment did so, quite honestly, for two reasons. First, they feared that it would not increase the respect in which this place is held by the public, and secondly, that 161 it would radically alter the nature of debates. I believe that last year's experiment did neither. It increased the public's interest and it has made no difference apparently to our proceedings.
It is true that some sensitive souls claimed to be severely shocked by the "noises off"—by the cries of "Rubbish" and "Rhubarb". However, the public must have us, warts and all. After all, Parliament is a substitute for violence, a natural safety-valve. If at times we behave in an eighteenth century manner by abusing our neighbours, that is part and parcel of the parliamentary process, and we should not be so refined as to wish to eradicate these natural and normal noises. Parliament, as I have said, is a theatre. We are its players. We come in search of prizes, some glittering, some not. Most of us end up as "nearly men". If at times we sound like the Eurovision Song Contest, at others we can play Lear.
Finally, I appeal to my hon. Friends who have doubts. We in the Conservative Party should not be stuffy. Communication is far too important to be left to journalists. Parliament has been failing in recent years to win the interest of the public. We should attempt to reverse the process. It is not enough for members of my party to shake their grey heads. The Conservative Party, above all, should never forget that politics is essentially a vulgar activity.
§ 8.50 p.m.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
A very large number of hon. Members are generally in favour of some form of sound broadcasting of the proceedings of the House, mostly because many think that the public should have more information about what happens in the Chamber. For that reason, I would not oppose an ultimate system of sound broadcasting. I regret that I would not be in a position to vote for the motion on the Order Paper at present, even were there to be a Division on it.
There are a number of matters that have not yet been raised on the Floor of the House. I hope that we shall have another opportunity to discuss them at a later stage. First, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) rightly put the case for a House of Commons broadcasting unit, and that received support from both sides 162 of the House. I regard that as a necessary condition for going ahead, but the form of the motion does not make that a necessary condition.
§ Mr. Whitehead
My hon. Friend will surely agree that to propose such a thing would go far beyond the remit of the Select Committee on Services. That Committee can only expand on the possibilities. It cannot make such a concrete suggestion. That is for the House, tonight.
§ Mr. Spearing
I agree. However, there is no such concrete suggestion in the Report. I am not suggesting that the Services Committee was not doing its job. This is why I am saying that we need another bite at the cherry before taking a substantive decision.
The other matter, which is of considerable substance, is the question of advance copies of documents and the various meetings that we understand take place with certain members of the Government in certain places prior to the proceedings on the Floor of the House. That involves papers being produced, as my hon. Friend agrees. I think that the review of the question of advance copies and the whole matter of Lobby correspondents and how they view the House should be examined as a whole. I agree with my hon. Friend that the matter must be examined, but I would want some new rules introduced before going ahead with the broadcasting of the House.
The third matter about which I am somewhat uneasy has already been referred to by the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Moore). The table at Appendix B on page 25 of the Select Committee's Report shows that Ministers got 42.21 per cent., Labour Back Benchers 17.48 per cent. and Conservatives 28.77 per cent. of time on "Today in Parliament" and "Yesterday in Parliament". The table does not split the percentage for Conservatives between Back Benchers and Front Benchers.
One of the difficulties that editors always have is balancing the major personalities—Ministers and members of the Shadow Cabinet—with Back Benchers. Successful though the one-month experiment was in many ways because it enabled people to hear and understand what was going on in the House of Commons, it necessarily raised all the 163 problems and dilemmas of the editing process. We should look at the matter again and decide to have the experiment for a year.
However, the motion before us proposes permanent broadcasting of the proceedings of the House. For various reasons I believe mat at present it goes too far. For instance, there is the whole question of snippets. Quite often snippets of a debate have been broadcast. If one looks over the period of a year one will see to what extent a continuous debate is reported and to what extent it is approached on a snippet basis. In that way one may be able to see a change in the trend and be able to judge better.
There is also the question of late night debates. Often, late night debates are important for particular interests or areas of the country. I do not think that in the Services Committee's Report there is an analysis of the coverage of these minority programme times. I thought it was indicative and interesting that in his evidence the Editor of Hansard pointed out that the broadcasting authorities were avid for Hansard in order to read it first, look at the column number and do their editing on the basis of the spoken word.
§ Mr. Spearing
I am obliged to my hon. Friend, but the point I was making did not necessarily apply only to live broadcasts. My hon. Friend's point has illustrated another matter that we have not properly distinguished in this debate. We are not talking about only live broadcasts; there are also recorded broadcasts, which are quite different.
164 I shall make my speech brief in the hope that this matter may be adjourned. I turn to the question of a Sessional Order. As I have suggested, I do not think that one month necessarily allows enough time for a valid experiment. I hope that if we go ahead we can do so under a Sessional Order for one year. That would be a much more sensible arrangement, and it would remove some of the problems from the system. It might also convince some hon. Gentlemen who might otherwise still have doubts about the matter.
The context of our speeches is a matter that is fundamental but has not yet been mentioned. So often when speaking in the Chamber we do not need to describe the context of our speech, because it is known by other hon. Members. There have been incidents in Standing Committee when we automatically know of a matter because we have read it in the papers or found out about it at meetings outside, and therefore it is common knowledge. However, it is difficult for certain people listening to appreciate this point, and our speeches are therefore not always as forceful or as clear as they might be. This is an inevitable part of the parliamentary process. It means that if broadcasting becomes permanent our speeches will, perforce, have to change their character and our exchanges will, perforce, have to change their character. I am not saying that that would necessarily be a bad thing. It might be very good. However, the point is that we shall not know.
If we pass a resolution such as the one on the Order Paper tonight, for the permanent broadcasting of the House, whether it be a recording or live, our exchanges may deteriorate, but we shall not be able to draw back. I hope that if we go ahead it will be on the basis of an experiment for one year.
§ Debate adjourned.—[Mr. Stoddart.]
§ Debate to be resumed tomorrow.