Today it does not even raise a flicker of surprise to see live broadcasts from the House of Commons or the House of Lords featured in the 24hr news cycle. Presenters will cut live to a debate, Prime Ministers Questions or give us a news alert for key statements to the House. For those who are uber keen, there is a whole channel of live coverage.
Before televised proceedings, British politicians had been used to a written account in Hansard, drawings perhaps and speeches, such as those during the war by Winston Churchill, broadcast over the radio. However, some years later it was the House of Lords that paved the way for television with the first live broadcast in 1975.
From debate in 1964 to broadcast in 1989
The issue of televising Parliament was debated as early as 1964. Once the House of Lords had proceeded, it is fair to say that the House of Commons resisted following ‘the other place’. By the time Members of Parliament debated the issue in 1988 it was the eleventh time in 22 years.
A vote three years earlier to hold ‘an experiment’ had been narrowly defeated but this time a six month experiment, despite the misgivings of Prime Minister Thatcher, passed with a majority of 54.
Some MPs were worried about trivialising Parliament but following a degree of procrastination, the first televised proceeding took place in November 1989. It covered a speech made by Conservative politician, Ian Gow.
In the early days viewers would only see a headshot of the person speaking, and reactions from the opposition. It soon became clear that demand for coverage was high and in July 1990 the experiment became permanent.
Has the use of live broadcasts been a good thing?
The up side is a clear increase in transparency and for the voters (even if they do not like what they see) to witness Parliament and their local MP in action. In some ways, MPs are pulled up for their behavior because of this and given higher scrutiny by the opposition, often in the hope it will make the news. It also holds politicians to a higher visual record that is easier to recall from the public memory.
The downside; some of which I have eluded to, is a more aggressive and image conscious parliament. Although some would dispute it, politicians are only human. Televised debate puts added pressure on politicians to be perfect in their every utterance, facial expression, clothing (particularly women) and bodily pose. One news channel even took to analysing body language after every PMQs. A mis-speak, off-day, loss of temper, attempt to be funny or quip (remember when David Cameron told a female Labour MP to ‘calm down dear’) will make the headlines, be referenced and potentially label your character forever.
The use of television will never leave Parliament but its purpose will adapt. In 1997 www.parliament.uk was launched. Its latest revamp included platforms for watching additional parliamentary proceedings such as Westminster Hall and Select Committees.
The new frontier will be how institutions use social media in a way that allows people to interact and influence what they are watching; perhaps in real time? As for television, the next phase of live broadcasting for Britain is the criminal justice system where it is likely to be extended beyond the Courts of Appeal. This has much more serious aspects to it and therefore demands higher scrutiny and public debate.