PMQs: Sky News chief John Ryley wants to revamp Prime Minister's Questions for iPhone generation

  • @iburrell

They have already been criticised for their “public school twittishness” by the Speaker of the House of Commons but now a senior television executive is calling for MPs to change their behaviour.

The editor of Sky News, John Ryley, is seeking talks with John Bercow to discuss how the raucous Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) could be made more accessible to the ordinary viewer.

In an interview with The Independent, Mr Ryley said he intended to open discussions with the Speaker with a view to making the 30-minute session “more straightforward and explicable” to the public.

“It’s not quite in a foreign language, but it’s slightly disconnected,” he said. “If you are a viewer you don’t know who the MP is who has been called and you don’t know the context.

“I would be quite keen to sit down with the Speaker of the House of Commons and discuss how we could change the nature and format of PMQs so it was more easily understood by people watching, whether on TV, an iPad or a phone.”

Mr Ryley said the sense of confusion, combined with “the whole noise thing” made the process difficult to follow. 

With the increase in on-demand viewing via tablets and mobiles it is thought that potential interest in watching PMQs is far greater than the small audience currently able to view the session live.

Earlier this year, Mr Bercow signalled his dissatisfaction with the way PMQs were conducted, although his concerns focused on the behaviour of MPs rather than the format of the debate.

“There are people who think culturally the atmosphere is very male, very testosterone-fuelled and, in the worst cases, of yobbery and public school twittishness,” he said.

The Labour leader Ed Miliband has said that he is “totally up for” improving the format of PMQs, which was last reformed in 1997 when Tony Blair changed the Tuesday and Thursday debates to a single session on Wednesdays.

“We should endeavour to be proud of the show we put on for the country,” said Mr Miliband. “Not giving people a sense that their kids behave better than we do.”

Sessions often become unseemly and insulting. A study of PMQs written by researchers at the University of York noted: “Over the years, Speakers have objected to the use of abusive epithets such as blackguard, coward, git, guttersnipe, hooligan, rat, swine, traitor and stool pigeon.”

Mr Ryley is likely to face an uphill battle in persuading the Commons to change the existing PMQs format. Currently the only advance detail of PMQs is a list of the MPs wishing to interrogate the Prime Minister. Convention requires MPs to begin with a formal request of the PM’s engagements for the day, and then follow up with an unspecified supplementary question.

Allowing broadcasters to have the detail of the questions would give the Prime Minister notice of what was being asked, fundamentally changing the nature of the exchanges.