The Independent Archive: 5 August 1987 - Why television may bring the House down

Colin Brown reports on MPs' anxieties over appearing on the box
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MICHAEL FOOT has no doubts about it. Like his political hero Nye Bevan, Mr Foot believes the Commons should be televised as a point of democratic principle. But the Labour back-bencher Andrew Faulds, the actor who appeared on television as Rob Roy, believes the cameras would turn the Palace of Westminster into the Palace of Varieties and does not want them admitted.

The MPs who last week went off for their summer break will have to decide between these opposing views when they return in the autumn for the first vote of the new Parliament, on whether the House of Commons should be televised.

Although it will be a free vote, cutting across party lines, the outcome could once again depend on the Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher helped to sway the Tory waverers against televising the House when the Commons last voted not to admit the cameras, in November 1985.

Months before the vote, the Downing Street press office had indicated she was in favour of televisation. Suddenly, on the night, she changed her mind. There were reports of Tories waiting to see which division lobby she entered before meekly following their leader.

In a BBC radio interview last week, Mrs Thatcher raised technical objections to televising the House: the lights might make the chamber too hot (ignoring the ice-cool air conditioning and the successful introduction of cameras in the Lords); and strict controls would have to be observed over the way the broadcasts were made (in the Lords, the cameras are forbidden from capturing peers asleep).

Cynics in the Commons believe her change of mind had more to do with the political realities than technical issues; she did not want to risk being "bested" at Prime Minister's Question Time. But the argument that she is "frit" - her word for scared - is difficult to sustain. Largely because of the way she does her homework and the way Prime Minister's Question Time is structured to her advantage, she comes out on top more often than not.

As an intimate medium, however, television would not take kindly to hectoring, shrillness or shouting, to which Mrs Thatcher resorts when she wishes to be heard over the baying of her opponents on the benches opposite. Being a practised television performer, and having worked hard to soften her image on television, she is well aware of the damage it could do.

Last time around, despite Mrs Thatcher's lead, seven Cabinet ministers voted in favour of the cameras - John Biffen, Kenneth Baker, Kenneth Clarke, Norman Fowler, Sir Geoffrey Howe, Peter Walker, Michael Heseltine and Leon Brittan. Nevertheless, the motion was defeated, by a majority of just 12. Radio broadcasts, which began permanently in 1978, continued. But the resulting half-way house seems to suit nobody.

Anthony Nelson, Tory MP for Chichester, is leading an all-party effort to overturn the 1975 vote. He has tabled a motion which calls for the House to approve in principle an experiment to televise its proceedings; and for a select committee to see how this could be set up. Among its supporters is Michael Foot.

If anything, Mr Foot is more in favour than he was in 1985. "I know people say the House makes a terrible noise, it does if you just listen to it, but I am sure that having television coverage would be to the good."

Andrew Faulds and two Tory MPs, Peter Griffiths and Charles Irving, chairman of the Commons catering committee, have hit back with a counter motion disapproving of televising the Commons. Another motion favours televising the proceedings of select committees. An all-party group chaired by Merlyn Rees, the former Labour Home Secretary, has now been formed to put the counter-arguments.

Glyn Matthias, an assistant editor at ITN, said: "If we were allowed to wheel in the cameras and put the lights up anyhow, we could do it over a weekend, but nobody presumes for a minute that would be possible. I hope, if we get a vote in favour of television the House, despite what Mrs Thatcher has said, we could operate an experiment from the Queen's Speech in November 1988.

From the Media Page of `The Independent', Wednesday 5 August 1987