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BBC Parliament Friday, 2 May, 2003, 16:27 GMT 17:27 UK
The rise and effect of MP TV
House of Commons Camera
Commons Camera : Did it help get rid of Thatcher?
Televising the House of Commons has been commonplace for 14 years. But it used to be a controversial issue. Since television's invention, letting cameras in the Commons was fiercely resisted.

As early as 1959, Sir Robin Day wrote a letter to The Times calling for MPs
Sir Robin Day
Sir Robin Day advocated broadcasting proceedings
"not to be blind and stubborn towards TV as it was in its unhappy struggle with the Press."

This advice was rejected.

Television's inevitable place in the chamber took another 40 years.

Public access to parliament was limited. The public gallery fit only 157 people onto its crammed benches. Newspapers and cartoons tend to colour their accounts of debates. But they have been allowed to make what they will of the mother of all Parliaments. So why bar newer forms of media from the chamber?

Resistant MPs believed there would be deeply damaging consequences if proceedings were televised. They cited a vulgarisation of the debates. Members would 'play to the camera', there would be the insistent on the cheap political point, there would be a greater reliance on the soundbite at the expense of a developed argument

Supporters of televising proceedings had the simplest of equations. We elect people to represent our interests - why can't we see what they're doing?

Commons Split

The Labour MP Austin Mitchell was a keen advocate. In 1983, he raised the issue on the floor of the house in a ten-minute rule bill. He said barring TV was an afront to democracy. But he also felt that televising his contributions would actually enable him to do his job better.

The motion was contentious.
Speaker Weatherill
"The aye's have it" - Speaker Weatherill cast his vote for the motion

The vote was tied.

Speaker Weatherill cast his deciding vote - as is convention - for the bill.

"I voted 'aye' to keep the matter open for further discussion," said the former Speaker. "I think the public has a right to read what is done in their name in the newspapers, to hear what is done in their name on the radio and to see what is done in their name on television."

In 1988, the Broadcasting Committee recommended an experiment to be operated under strict rules. Many reports, debates and votes laters, cameras entered the Commons.

Lights, Cameras, Speeches

Eight remote-controlled cameras were mounted, special television lamps were put up ready to record the debate on the Queen's Speech.

On 23 November 1989, the late Conservative MP Ian Gow made television and parliamentary history. He was the first member to make a televised Commons speech. Ironically, he had voted against the idea.

Austin Mitchell recalls how in the first few days it introduced an element of humour.
Broadcasting Parliament
25 Apr 1928 First Budget Broadcast
23 Feb 1950 First televised report of General Election
26 Oct 1950 Radio and TV broadcasts from Commons on opening of rebuilt chamber
9 Jun 1975 Experiement radio broadcasts from Parliament
23 Jan 1985 Start of TV broadcasts from Lords
21 Nov 1989 Start of experimental broadcast from Commons
Summer 1998 BBC takes ver running of the Parliamentary Channel - BBC Parliament

"There were lots of coy jokes. The element of the after-dinner speakers jokes was brought it. Members reacted to this new invention as if they had to be "funny", " Mr Mitchell says.

"But as times went on you could see who were the naturally good speakers and you could see who could mobilise an argument."

Dramas and Doughnuts

Have the prophets of doom who expected the worst, seen their predictions come true?

One physical change which is beyond doubt is the often shameless use of "douhgnnutting".
Hew Irranca-Davies MP, Maiden Speech
Welsh Donut - Ogmore MP makes his maiden speech
This is where fellow honourable members will sit around the MP making his great piece of oratory in the hope that a wider camera shot will allow their faces to be transmitted to the homes of their dear constituents.

It can also show that the speech is supported by colleagues.

But what of the debates? Certainly, members realised that if they wanted to make it into the news bulletins, they would have to deliver short, sharp quotable speeches.

But television did not develop the political soundbite.

Some of the greatest politicians in history saw how effective soundbites could be. Churchill's rhetoric is among the most quotable, and quoted, today.

Former MP and sketchwriter, Matthew Parris says the only real change was MP's sartorial decisions.

But Conservative MP David Amess, an opponent at the time and still a self-confessed 'dinosaur', actually believes it helped get rid of Thatcher.
There wouldn't be so few Conservative MPs now if we hadn't had all that televising of proceedings

David Amess MP, Conservative, Southend West

Mr Amess has blamed the fact that Geoffrey Howe's devestating resignation speech from 1990 was not given to the Commons, but to the world.

And the effect of that was to show how weak the Conservative Prime Minister's position was, not only to the electorate, but across the continents.

It may be a long shot to say Mrs T's downfall was the driect result of televising the Commons, but Mr Amess may have a point. A powerful speech is now powerful further than the floor of the Commons.

A persuasive speech not only persuades members, but persuades an electorate.

In Commons on Camera, Tessa Duggleby speaks to the key players and commentators in the debate, including Austin Mitchell, David Amess, Sir Alan Haselhurst, former Speaker Lord Weatherill and Matthew Parris.

Showing on BBC Parliament on Sunday 4 May at 1600 BST.

Political Commentator, Matthew Parris
"Let no-one tell you television has vulgarised Parliament"
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14 Oct 02 | BBC Parliament
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