Media: The new House mistress: Michael Leapman talks to BBC veteran Margaret Douglas about her new job as supervisor of parliamentary broadcasting

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The Independent Online
WHEN YOU have been with an organisation for 42 years, leaving it for something better can be a wrench as well as a surprise.

'Of course I shall be distraught to leave,' says Margaret Douglas, who has just stepped down as political adviser to John Birt, the BBC's director-general. 'But isn't it wonderful that other people want you after all that time?'

The other people who want her are the members of the Houses of Lords and Commons, no less, who have appointed her supervisor of parliamentary broadcasting in succession to John Grist, another BBC veteran who sagely steered the televising of Parliament through its teething stages. She takes up her new post next week.

The job description could have been tailor-made for Ms Douglas, 58, who has spent much of her career easing the potentially prickly relations between broadcasters and politicians, learning that one person's impartiality is another's blatant bias. Among the 78 people who applied when the job was advertised last year, she stood out.

'I'm quite used to dealing with politicians and I know what their concerns are,' she said, as we spoke by the ping- pong table in the recreation area of the control room where the broadcasts are produced, several hundred yards from the chamber itself.

Starting as a secretary in BBC radio in 1951, she soon switched to television and by the age of 21 was a production secretary on Panorama, which then featured Richard Dimbleby.

'The average age on the programme was 25,' she recalls. 'The editor, Michael Peacock, was 26. We had a terrific time. We were actually determining the grammar and framework of television current affairs.'

From there she moved to the political programme Gallery as a researcher, then a studio director. 'I became something of a political specialist. I found I had a profound interest in and instinct for politics.'

In the 1970s she began to organise the BBC's coverage of the party conferences: always fertile ground for accusations of political bias. In 1983 the director-general, Alasdair Milne, asked her to become his special adviser.

'My job was to hold the ring between the BBC and the political parties. One of the first things I did was to collect and present the BBC's evidence to the committee deciding on the experimental televising of the House of Lords. The Lords were very courageous in a way: they let in the cavalry.'

In 1987, when Michael Checkland took over from Mr Milne, her title changed to political adviser, but the duties stayed the same. 'I was terribly lucky with my jobs,' she maintains. 'But if you start when you are just 17 you are five or six years ahead of everybody else.'

On the face of it, broadcasting Parliament seems absurdly easy. You do not have to select what to show: the broadcasts are part of the official record, so the remote-control cameras are always switched on when the houses are in session. And since the cameras are in fixed locations, there is a limit to their manoeuvrability.

Yet Ms Douglas knows how easy it is to offend the sensibilities of politicians, and knows too that, sovereign in their own houses, they have the final right to say whether the broadcasts can carry on. Her task is to see that the guidelines laid down by the parliamentary committee which controls broadcasting are adhered to, and that the cameras do not dominate the chambers.

'If the demands of the broadcasters destroyed the working environment it wouldn't be continued, and quite rightly not,' she observed. Complaints about the lighting and sound systems were routine when the Commons was first televised in 1989, but since then more up-to-date equipment has been installed and the grievances have faded.

The original rules about what could and could not be broadcast were rigid. Only MPs actually addressing the House could be in shot, and no cruel close- ups were allowed. General views of the House were forbidden.

Now those rules have been modified. Cameras can zoom quite close to members and are also allowed to focus on those mentioned in their colleagues' speeches. This requires the technicians who guide the cameras from the control room to be familiar enough with MPs to be able to recognise and home in on, say, 'my honourable friend the member for Vauxhall' as soon as the words are uttered.

'What I think the pictures should show is what a politically interested person sitting there would want to look at,' says Ms Douglas. 'We don't look around for the quirky picture.

'The Commons is more difficult to televise than almost any other legislature in the world. In most legislatures the members have seats and a microphone. They speak one after the other in a fairly structured way. None of that applies to the Commons.'

But she is convinced that it is worth the trouble and delighted that parliamentary broadcasting has so quickly become part of the political landscape.

'It's unthinkable what we did without it. From the start it never felt special, always normal. The fact that more people now know what the politicians look like must have some impact on the political process.'

(Photograph omitted)