Parliament-The Sketch: Revealed - arresting drama of a ministerial mugging

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The Independent Online
THE HANSARD Society reported last week that criminals get six times more airtime than Parliament. I think there is a lesson to be learnt from this.

Criminals try quite hard not to get their faces on television; politicians, on the other hand, have been known to rugby-tackle exhausted television crews on Parliament Green to share with them their latest apercus on the Common Agricultural Policy. And because they like - no, adore - to see themselves on television, they find it hard to understand why the rest of the country doesn't.

It's possible that the problem lies in the style rather than the content, since the official feed from the fixed cameras leaves something to be desired in terms of drama.

But even here that statistic about criminals offers some hope, since their high ratings depend on similar closed-circuit television pictures. So instead of Oral Questions to the Secretary of State for Defence perhaps we could be given "Questiontimewatch", presented by Nick Ross. A murky high-angle shot would reveal a potato-faced individual with a mouth narrower than his nose, lurking near the dispatch box. "Do any viewers recognise this man?" Mr Ross would ask. "When this footage was taken a number of straight answers had recently gone missing ... Do give us a call if you think you know his name."

Naturally reconstruction would be important too - replacing the dull formality of parliamentary procedure with something more melodramatic. Yesterday, for example, the Tories attempted to stage a minor ambush over relations between Jamie Shea, the Nato spokesman, and Alastair Campbell. John Bercow was the point man for this operation, asking a question about battle-damage assessments, in the course of which he threw Mr Shea's name into the ring. Mr Robertson, who probably had his suspicions by this point, parried the blow: the answer to the question of how much damage Nato had done to Milosevic's military capabilities, he said, "can be quite simply summed up in one word - enough!"

It worked for a while, but then Iain Duncan Smith joined the ruck, wondering whether there was anything to be read into the fact that Mr Campbell's arrival seemed to coincide with the sudden amplification of Nato claims. At that point all the Tory backbenchers jumped out from behind the bushes, making a peculiarly parliamentary exclamation - a kind of pantomime "Aahhh!" of astonishment and concern, which is intended to suggest that a terrible secret has just been inadvertently revealed. Mr Robertson brushed off Mr Duncan Smith as a "dismal jimmy" and went on his way.

As muggings go it was something of an anti-climax. Mr Duncan Smith ended up without getting anything of value and Mr Robertson barely knew he'd been mugged. But how much better it could look in the reconstruction. Cutaways to Mr Bercow looking shifty would slowly build the tension. Mr Duncan Smith could be shot from a low angle to emphasise his menace and the lookalike playing him encouraged to put a bit of sneering verve into the performance. The phrase "I thank the Right Honourable gentleman for his answer" could even be bleeped out, allowing viewers to substitute something saltier. And then Mr Robertson could pull out a sawn-off shotgun and scream: "Back off, chummy, or I'll show you what double-barrelled really means."

The ending we already know. Not Madam Speaker's drably functional "Time's up", but Mr Ross's classic reassurance: "Sleep well and don't have nightmares. The vast majority of television viewers and radio listeners will never encounter this kind of unpleasantness, particularly since Yesterday in Parliament was shifted to long wave."

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