HC Deb 26 November 1971 vol 826 cc1803-14

3.28 p.m.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

I beg to move, That this House authorises the House of Commons (Services) Committee to arrange for the broadcasting of its proceedings under safeguards similar to those envisaged by the Select Committee on Broadcasting of Proceedings in the House of Commons, primarily the preparation of a complete tape, akin to the Official Report, by a House of Commons Broadcasting Unit, which might then be used for any bona fide purpose by the broadcasting authorities, broadcasting to proceed by the following stages—

  1. (1) radio broadcasting.
  2. (2) sound on vision,
  3. (3) a closed-circuit television experiment, and, after the specific approval of the House,
  4. (4) television broadcasting.
First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. Lena Jeger) and other hon. Members who took part in the debate on her Motion for allowing me this short period in which to make the points I wish to put to the House. Naturally, I should say at once that I have not the slightest intention of pushing this Motion to a vote on this day at this late hour. Having given that assurance also to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House and to the Opposition spokesman, I entirely understand why the right hon. Gentlemen, who have other engagements, cannot be present. They knew that I was not going to push the Motion but merely wished to make a few points.

I should perhaps begin by stating my own bias in this matter. I am, of course, in favour of broadcasting the proceedings of this House. I was in favour of it before I came to the House in 1964, and I think that I may say that I had some share in starting this latest spate of discussion when I took the trouble to try to assess opinion in the House at that time. The matter was referred to a Select Committee which already then existed, the Select Committee on Publications and Debates Reports of the House.

I would not, and I hope that nobody else present would ever lay claim to being the first person who wished to have our proceedings broadcast. That tribute should be paid to the late Lord King-Hall, who was of course a broadcaster himself, but unlike many of the broadcasters now in the House who oppose broadcasting our proceedings. One of them is honest enough to say that he opposes it because it would reduce his own broadcasting position. Unlike that sort of broadcaster, Lord King-Hall was in favour of broadcasting the proceedings of the House, so much so that he had the Standing Orders of the old Select Committee on Publications and Debates altered so that it could consider broadcasting, as it did.

Eventually, three Select Committees in succession considered this issue, and in August, 1966, there was produced the report to which I am now drawing attention. In November of that year, there was a proposal for a closed circuit television experiment. That proposal was defeated by one vote. It is interesting to note that the vote was not in any way by party. Both parties were almost equally divided in the House at that time.

Some of us analysed the Division afterwards and found that by age there was a colossal difference. Irrespective of party, those Members above the median age were against it and those below were in favour, in each case with only small minorities the other way. It is significant, and I think that the explanation is not just that people get more conservative as they get older. It is perfectly simple. It is that once people get into this place, they become very busy, working late at night and with very little time to see television or to appreciate its impact on the normal home. The younger Members, brought up in the age of television, seem now, irrespective of party, to be almost overwhelmingly in favour of broadcasting our proceedings, and that is significant.

However, by one vote the proposal was lost. The nature of that vote gives me hope that in due course that proposal will be carried in this Parliament by the simple process of there now being 150 new Members.

What seems forgotten is that on 11th December, 1967, the House approved a radio broadcasting experiment. That experiment was held. It is perfectly clear, and it has been made clear by the decision of the House, that the House is prepared to consider radio broadcasting, although not prepared to consider television broadcasting. I regard this view as eminently sensible. It is the view of the House and my own personal view, and it is this case which I wish to expound today.

When we have a day for the discussion of broadcasting, as the Leader of the House has assured us we are to have after Christmas, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will consider not necessarily the words of the Motion, but some form of words which make the same points. I am suggesting that we ought to go in for broadcasting our proceedings but unlike some Motions on the Order Paper, mine does not merely put a simple issue of principle before the House as to whether we go ahead with broadcasting straight away.

For decades the House has been opposed to radio broadcasting and, for so long as television broadcasting has existed, it has been opposed to television broadcasting. Although I believe that the House now contains a majority in favour of broadcasting the proceedings, I do not think we should suddenly go to the opposite extreme and say that having held back the sea like King Canute for so long, we should now let it flow in and inundate the whole of the proceedings. It is like learning to swim. We are going into new media of communication, but we should perhaps learn to swim at the shallow end before diving off the high board into the deep end.

Mr. Peter Rost (Derbyshire, South-East)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, particularly as he knows that I support his Motion. Might it not help to persuade Members on both sides of the House to support the televising of Parliament if the B.B.C. and I.T.A. could be persuaded to put forward proposals about how they intend to handle such a licence?

Mr. English

The hon. Member will find that the precise reason why I am drawing the attention of the House to the Select Committee's Report is that this, and many more problems have been discussed in it. I shall come to his point at an appropriate stage when discussing the Report. The point I am making now is that we should start with radio broadcasting and then, by easy stages, allow sound to be used on the television screen. We should not at this stage go on to have the proceedings televised until the House, after a period of radio broadcasting, has further approved the principle of television broadcasting. On that point I differ from the Select Committee, of which I was a member. There are reasons for this which I should like to explain. This House had, and approved, the radio broadcasting experiment. There is no real reason why we could not, at an earlier stage, have proceeded to radio broadcasting. No such proposal was put before the House and I ought to explain the primary reason for this.

There are many Members of the House who, because they are in favour of radio broadcasting and who realise the impact of television, want to go all the way immediately. That was not the view of the House at that time. Radio would raise almost insuperable problems between B.B.C. and because if we had gone in for sound broadcasting only at that time, the B.B.C. would have been put in a unique position. There was, therefore, strong but private pressure, I think, from the television companies to ensure that that did not occur.

Whether one agrees with commercial local radio or not, the present Government are introducing it. So this stumbling block to what I now propose is being removed by other items of the Government's policy. I hope that the Leader of the House and the Government will therefore consider radio broadcasting before television broadcasting.

Mr. Ivor Richard (Barons Court)

Would not my hon. Firend agree that if the object of the exercise is first to increase the degree of communication between this House and the public, what is needed first is that television should have a ringside seat on the big occasions? Would it not be more worth-while to televise the Budget or the Foreign Secretary's speech of yesterday than to have a quarter of an hour or half an hour of a potted version of the proceedings in sound only? "Today in Westminster" is valuable, but it may be tedious.

Mr English

If my hon. Friend has read this Report, he must have forgotten its contents. The alternatives are not between special events and a potted version. The alternatives are between lifting the ban on any form of broadcasting, which is one possibility, and the point put by my hon. Friend, which is a series of special events. I am very much opposed to the latter. My whole point is that the House should consider with the greatest care the whole issue of broadcasting, that it should determine exactly how it is to be done and determine it as a matter of the principle of broadcasting.

I am very glad that the idea of televising the Common Market debate did not materialise. The House should never decide an issue of principle, which I believe to be of some magnitude, in terms of a special circumstance or event, but because it believes that television or sound broadcasting should occur; it should determine how it wishes it to occur, and see how it goes. The House should not decide merely that it wants an odd special event—a Profumo debate or a Common Market debate—put on television. That would be disastrous to the whole idea.

This is the way in which the matter is conducted in Germany. One of the things that the Select Committee investigated was the various ways in which other places work. The evidence in this Report shows that we were not in favour of some of the practices of the German Bundestag, which, for instance, stops its proceedings when visitors of note come into the gallery—which in my view is the practice of a legislature with little experience compared to this one.

There are other reasons, apart from this basic principle, why one should go in for radio broadcasting first. I would appeal to all my colleagues to read this Select Committee's Report in some detail. The various Select Committees had 23 meetings and took evidence of all sorts from all over the world. They did not arrive at their conclusions lightly or without thought. I have every reason to believe that, with the one exception of the chapter on finance, where, of course inflation has outdated our cost assessment, the basic conclusions of the Committee are sound in every respect.

This includes the question of the technical requirements. Let me say bluntly, what many hon. Members do not realise—if we approved radio broadcasting, our proceedings could be broadcast almost immediately, while if we approved television broadcasting, they could not, except as a result of practices which I believe the House would find intolerable. In the Report, it is pointed out that, apart from one additional central microphone, the positions of the existing microphones would not need to be altered. Since it is basically a public address system, they might have to be replaced with microphones of a higher quality, suited to the quality of production which the B.B.C. puts out, but their positions would not have to be altered. There is a small matter of a sound mixing booth like the one in the corner of the Chamber, used by the public address system, and very little else would be required in the way of space or equipment for sound broadcasting.

Television is completely different. All the broadcasting organisations recommended that this Chamber could not be televised without the use of at least six cameras, and the Select Committee suggested that eight were needed. These eight would, at present, have to be large, manned cameras. One of the reasons that I am reluctant to see a closed circuit television experiment is that, unfortunately, for purposes of a mere experiment, we would face the situation in which the House of Lords put itself when it agreed to an experiment. We would have a level of lighting unnecessarily high for the purposes of broadcasting. We would have cameras actually occupying space which at the moment is occupied by benches, as happened in the House of Lords. The equipment required is not available, although it could be made available.

Mr. Philip Whitehead (Derby, North)

Is my hon. Friend saying that the six or notionally eight cameras which would be used in the precincts of the Chamber would have to be manned at all times? Does he not concede that there are automatic cameras which could do some of this work, certainly within the Chamber's precincts?

Mr. English

I understand that only two are available. That is the point. My hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg), who was Chairman of the Select Committee which considered the question of broadcasting, took the trouble to ascertain what the present situation was. He kindly passed to me the information which he obtained, and I understand that there are not enough cameras available. This is the sort of point which hon. Members have not taken the trouble to ascertain. Such equipment could be manufactured. Small, remote-controlled cameras could be tucked under the galleries. All this is possible. The Select Committee's Report made it clear that it is possible. But as no one has any use for the cameras except for televising the House, they would have to be manufactured. A rough assessment which was given us at the time was that the appropriate equipment could be produced in about two years from the time that the House made a decision in the matter. We might as well make use of that two years.

Therefore, the second, purely technical reason which I adduce for going in for radio broadcasting of our proceedings first is that it is practicable. We could go straight into radio broadcasting and shortly afterwards, albeit a measurable period of, say, two years afterwards, we could go in for television broadcasting. This is desirable as well as being the practicable thing to do.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor)

I have read the Select Committee's Report. I understand the logic of the hon. Gentleman's argument that we must start with sound broadcasting because it will take a long time to obtain the necessary television equipment. However, in his Motion he suggests that a complete tape should be made of the proceedings. I am unable to understand whether he is in favour of having a continuous record broadcast of all the proceedings of Parliament or, as the hon. and learned Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) indicated, having sections of an edited tape released. Would he kindly enlighten me on the question of who should be the censor?

Mr. English

I propose to come to that point, but before doing so I wish to mention another matter.

A tremendous amount of accommodation would be required for the necessary equipment and staff—much more for televising the proceedings than for sound broadcasting. A lot of nonsense is talked about what might or might not go out from this Chamber. I am in favour of lifting the ban on broadcasting. That means exactly what it means in relation to the Press. We do not say to members of the Press, "This is what you must do. You must produce a complete report of the proceedings of the House, whether they are dull or eminently interesting." We say to the Press, "You may sit in the Gallery"—as they are doing now—"and report such proceedings as you wish".

A lot of nonsense is talked about the way in which we might broadcast. Some people are in favour of continuous broadcasting, which theoretically occurs in other legislatures. It does not occur in practice in Australia; there is continuous broadcasting but not of any one House. It may occur in New Zealand but I do not think it occurs anywhere else.

The members of the Select Committee made it plain that they were against that for the very good reason that it might affect the procedures of this House, something which no hon. Member wants to do. They thought that the procedures might start to alter, as has happened in other legislatures which have tried it, because people would want to put over the peak incident at the peak viewing or listening time.

They were very much against continuous broadcasting, though not against recording the proceedings as a whole and then saying to people, "It is up to you to decide what part of this continuous record you wish to use". The analogy was With HANSARD. The OFFICIAL REPORT produces a verbatim report of the proceedings of the House. HANSARD is an organisation under our control and the OFFICIAL REPORT is done by our own Official Reporters.

Anybody else can come here and do a verbatim report. The Press Association could, if it wished, but it does not find it necessary to record every last syllable of every speech. We drew this analogy, but it is only an analogy because there are certain differences.

A lot of nonsense is talked about hon. Members not wanting other people to edit our proceedings. I say that because the first editor of our proceedings is, in fact, the Chair. The process by which information goes out from this Chamber starts with the decision as to who shall speak, and this decision is made by the Chair. The second part of the editing process is conducted either by the Press or, as it would be with television, those who would decide whose speeches would be used in the media of communication under discussion.

With television this is a somewhat more complex process than with the Press because there is a second decision to be made which does not occur with radio or the Press. That decision is which of the eight cameras will be on the screen at a given moment. That decision, the Select Committee recommended, should be made by another official reporter akin to the Editor of HANSARD. In other words, the eight cameras should be controlled by a staff of this House who would decide which picture shall appear on the screen at any given moment.

However, that official staff would not be doing the third process of editing. Having produced the signal or videotape—videotape is not a permanent record; it exists for a time but cannot be kept for ever—that would go out to the broadcasting organisations and it would be entirely up to those organisations to determine what they wished to use of the material.

The broadcasting organisation in Wales—but in Wales alone—might wish to use hours of a Welsh debate. However, 1 cannot imagine the B.B.C. or I.T.N. spending that amount of time nationally on a Welsh debate. There would obviously be a series of programmes, and these are listed in the Report, including news, education and current affairs programmes. Each organisation would choose for itself the amount of the signal or tape it was prepared to use.

Mr. Whitehead

I understand that my hon. Friend is saying that the professional who, as it were, orchestrates the eight cameras and decides which one appears on the screen—this is perhaps the most highly skilled job in television—should be either an official of this House or under the control of this House. Is he saying that this person would be a professional in the employ of this House or that this professional should be under the control of other people who are the nominees or appointees of this House?

Mr. English

We made it clear that the job must be done by a professional. The Editor of HANSARD is a professional who has been doing his job in various places, not only in this House, as a journalist. He is a professional of many years' standing. One would assume that this job would be done by a professional, and we made it clear in that Report that the job of producing the original tape or signal for subsequent use would be done by a staff of professionals employed by this House. We made it quite clear, and it was entirely intentional that we did so.

I well remember an occasion when the late Bernard Floud, who was a member of the Select Committee in the 1964 Parliament, because he had something the matter with his back, lay prone on a bench here during an all-night debate—except when he very nobly staggered up to vote in the Division Lobby. No reporter working here reported that. Nobody said that he was asleep on the benches here. He was not asleep, and because the reporters, the members of the Press Gallery, were well aware that he was ill and not asleep nobody ever misreported that event, but it could easily have been misunderstood and so misreported by strangers.

One of the reasons why television cannot be introduced is that it requires 10,000 sq. ft. of floor space, not only for the staff of this House but for the staff of the B.B.C. and the I.T.A., who wanted to do their editing of the video tape on these premises. In my view, that was a very sensible suggestion of theirs. So the question of the control of staff should be thought of in the context of staffs working together though not necessarily under the same control. The television people wanted to do their editing here and made that sensible suggestion for the same reasons as the newspapers have their reporters in the Gallery and in the Lobby because they, being continually on the premises, know much more about the way the House works than do people who are working outside the building and not continually on the premises. Of course, it could be done in Broadcasting House, the Television Centre or the I.T.N. building, but it would be much wiser if editing of the tape took place on the premises in just the same way as the newspapers have their reporting done by reporters who are here.

I want to leave a couple of minutes to the Under-Secretary of State if he wishes to say anything, and the final point I would make is one which has not been discussed by anybody discussing broadcasting in this House. It is the question of the broadcasting of Committees of the House. The work which Scots and Welsh Members do in the Scottish and Welsh Grand Committees is a very important part of their work, and that would be entirely cut off from the public if those Committees were not broadcast. Of course, broadcasting them also would cost much more because it would mean fitting into the rooms upstairs equipment similar to that which would be used here in the Chamber itself, but it is, in my view, vital to the whole position of Parliament in the public eye that the discussions in some of our Committees should be broadcast. Some of them are of very great importance and newsworthiness in themselves, and they are from time to time reported in the newspapers and on the radio, but the Scottish and Welsh Committees and other Committees of that character form a large part of the content of the work of the Members concerned. To cut them out from broadcasting proceedings would be a disaster to them.

I close by hoping that, as I said at the beginning, the Leader of the House will take these remarks into consideration in framing the Motion he is likely to put before the House and will consider radio broadcasting before proceeding immediately with television.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Paul Channon)

I rise to say that my right hon. Friend apologises for not being able to be here, but he will note what has been said—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.