Podium: Digital TV could revive real debate

From the Labour MP's speech at the launch of `Electronic Media, Parliament and the People', a report by the Hansard Society
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WE SHOULD celebrate 10 years of televising Parliament. It was absolutely right to bring Parliament direct to the people, but the coverage has been sadly misused - the political class is less well catered for than those interested in porn. Television people always argue that the lack of coverage of Parliament is our [MPs'] fault. We should trust them, open up Parliament to allow the television crews and companies to work as they - and where they - please and just lie back and enjoy it when Peter Snow comes leaping up into the tea room, or Jeremy Paxman into the upmarket Churchill Room.

That would be disastrous.

Parliament is a club to protect us when we want to hide from wives, mistresses and the media rather as real people have allotments. If we want to speak, we'll come outside and put our views in the rain. When we do, we usually find that no-one wants them.

The media would rather fawn on leaders and ministers than talk to us. Indeed, the thing that needs to be broken is not the protective shell of Parliament, but the conspiracy between the parties and the media to damp down real debate.

The "Medians" and the "Leaders" work on a system of "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours". The media get the droppings from the table of power, even personal interviews with Tony Blair and William Hague - though both are becoming a glut on the market.

In turn the leaders get to put across their own views as if they were those of the party, and they pick and choose who else goes on - a power parties use to keep dissenters off prestige programmes.

Rebels, of course, get on when they vote against their parties as the media thrives on dissent, rows, division and argument. What does not get on, however, is the debate within the parties, the range of differences, the exclusion of the rank and file from influence - even a role - in our new top-down presidential system.

This conspiracy requires both media and parties to present the image of two blocks who think alike, and whose views can be adequately represented in all their complexity and diversity by a nice spin doctor quote from a leading party figure.

It's inevitable, even desirable, that the parties should control the agenda at election time. Everything is at stake then. But to give them the same control between elections is wrong, and the media's conspiracy to sustain it even worse, because they should encourage diversity and discussion, not offer themselves as a platform for power. So the real opportunity for television politics is - as digital comes along and channels multiply - to offer the platform we need for diversity, dissent and discussion.

There is no reason why the new minority channels, even Sky News, should simply ape big channel coverage. They should become the platform for debate and different points of view, and an opportunity for Backbenchers to voice their opinions. Moreover, it will be the opportunity to break out of the trap to which modern democracy confines us.

With mass parties the executive, the leadership of the majority party, controls the legislature, and Parliament is reduced to a stage for a four- year election campaign. Dissent has to be suppressed and discounted. The parties must pretend to be totally united. This stretches credibility. MPs lose courage. The electorate loses interest.

The media do not rescue us from that trap because they have become co- conspirators with the party leaders. Only pluralism can - if it gives opportunities for both the full range of Parliamentary opinions to be expressed and for the debate on policy, that should occur in the Parliamentary parties and the House, to go public.

Until that happens my sympathies lie not with the media that promises to deliver the people from evil, i.e. us - but with the dissenters who have no voice in debate because no one is interested or will listen when they speak: those dissenters who have no platform in the newspapers which prefer to use their own columnists, all the time, on every issue.

Members of Parliament are now even excluded from the regional TV magazines and programmes through which we used to reach our constituencies because politics is considered boring at tea time and has to be relegated to political ghetto programmes which are rarely watched by anyone.

So, we now have no voice on television, which has become the leader's megaphone, not the Backbencher's sounding board, reducing television politics to an implausible extrusion of pre-digested pap.

Is it any wonder that people are switching it off in droves?