Page last updated at 18:07 GMT, Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Democracy on television

By Alasdair Rendall
Producer, MPTV: 20 years of Commons on Camera

Feelings ran high on both sides of the argument

It's hard to imagine the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate being seen by only a select few.

But in fact it was only 20 years ago that TV cameras were finally turned on in the House of Commons, after many decades of wrangling.

In "MPTV: 20 Years of Commons on Camera", David Wilby looks at how parliamentary life has been changed by letting the cameras broadcast its daily business.

November 1989 was the culmination of years of arguments in parliament. Was it a necessary feature of a modern democracy for the public to watch their elected representatives at work? Or would the TV cameras destroy the sanctity of parliament, with broadcasters manipulating the pictures, and mischievous MPs using the cameras for self-publicity?

All parties were split down the middle. Vote after vote to allow televising was lost, some extremely narrowly.

Success at last

However in February 1988, a breakthrough was made.

Conservative backbencher Anthony Nelson successfully tabled a motion to allow in cameras for an experimental 18 month period - despite his own leader Margaret Thatcher being against the move.

21 months later and the cameras were finally turned on.

The House of Commons however was not the first chamber in parliament to let in TV cameras - in fact it was the House of Lords that had been the first to open themselves up to the camera lens: first in 1968 with a short internal experimental broadcast, then finally on a permanent basis from the mid eighties.

The 18 month experiment in the Commons was such a success however, that it soon became permanent, with support from such key parliamentarians like the then deputy speaker Betty Boothroyd.

However some of those who were against the move, like backbench MP and former TV producer Roger Gale, feel it's been detrimental to the public's perception of parliament. The rowdy atmosphere of PMQs gets all the focus - with the real behind the scenes work of MPs going un-noticed.

What do they think?

Not everyone was in favour of the cameras

The programme comes as a survey reveals that over two thirds of MPs think televising has made parliament more transparent.

The survey, carried out for BBC Parliament by ComRes, has also discovered that 93% of MPs think that a Parliament closed off to television would now be "unthinkable".

However concerns about the broadcasting of parliament remain, with 21% of MPs claiming that televising the House of Commons has undermined its dignity.

Overall it is members of the upper house - which in fact was the first to let in cameras - that have proved more receptive to televising. For example two thirds of Peers believe that the influence of parliament has been enhanced by letting in cameras, compared with just a third of MPs.

But 20 years on, and with MPs being under the microscope like never before, it seems the TV cameras are here to stay.

BBC Parliament marks the 20th anniversary of the televising of the House of Commons, with a special programme "MPTV: 20 Years of Commons on Camera", presented by David Wilby, on BBC Parliament, Saturday 21 November at 2100 GMT.

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