HL Deb 22 July 1985 vol 466 cc991-8

3.4 p.m.

Lord Soames rose to move, That this House takes note of the First Report by the Select Committee [H.L. 213] and approves the continuation of the televising of the proceedings of the House on the basis of the current experiment until such time as the House takes a decision on whether or not to permit the permanent televising of its proceedings.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. The issue before your Lordships' House, between the Motion on the one hand and the amendment on the other, covers, as it were, a limited front of a major problem, but the result will be extremely important, for reasons that I wish to put to your Lordships.

First, there is a question of what this debate is not about. It is not about the long-term decision as to whether or not this House will continue to be televised. The House will clearly wish to debate this question and clearly will debate it in the next Session, when your Lordships will have received the considered report from the Select Committee on Televising the Proceedings of the House, when the committee will give its mature consideration to the results of the experiment and will put its views before the House. So I do not think it would be right today to take up the time of the House and to use this debate to deploy the arguments which in my view should wait until that definitive debate.

What we are considering today is whether, given the circumstances in which we are now placed, your Lordships would wish to agree to the televising of the House continuing on the present basis for the few months after mid-October, when the House returns, until the House comes to consider the definitive report of the Select Committee—we are talking in terms of months, though obviously I cannot say how many—or, on the other hand, if the amendment were to be passed, whether televising should be brought to an end now (for that is what the amendment calls for), so that when we return in October there will be no televising in the House. Presumably everything will be removed from the House and there will be, as it were, a hiatus, which may or may not be filled after the definitive debate.

What are the arguments in favour of letting the present arrangements continue? The first point that I should like to put to your Lordships came out in the Select Committee's interim report: the fact that both the BBC and ITV have requested that the experiment be allowed to continue. I recommend that those of your Lordships who have not already done so should read the letters that have been written to the committee by those two organisations, because they show that they believe that their audiences wish it to continue, and that their audiences appreciate the programmes that have resulted from such televising. The listening figures are available. They show that the audiences have reached many millions. Further than that I should not wish to go in this debate.

At the other end of the scale is my second reason, which is that I do not think that many of your Lordships feel that either our debates or noble Lords individually have been affected for the worse because of the presence of cameras in your Lordships' House. I think that even the lighting, which I remember caused much anxiety in the debate before the matter was settled, has come to be accepted as tolerable by your Lordships.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, no!

Lord Soames

Well, generally speaking, my Lords. I cannot speak for the noble Lord, who has always been hostile to this idea, but generally speaking I should say that that was true.

Then there is the fact that much evidence would seem to support the greater respect and repute of your Lordships' House in the country and an improved understanding among the people of the part that the House plays in our national life. I repeat that I should not think it right to pursue this most powerful argument until we come to the definitive debate. Suffice it to say today in general terms that I believe that the great majority of your Lordships consider the experiment to have been successful in those terms. Indeed, I believe that there are more of your Lordships who might have been doubtful in the beginning about the wisdom of televising your Lordships' House but who have now come to accept it as a good thing as opposed to the other way round—those of your Lordships who thought it was a good thing but who have come to doubt it as a result of the experiment.

The televising of the House has gained a certain momentum in the country. I hope that your Lordships will feel that the time to bring it to an end, if it comes to that, would be after the Select Committee has presented its definitive report and the House has considered it and taken its decision. But there must be, to say the least, a good possibility that when that time comes the House will decide that televising should be continued for a notably longer time, in which case what a pity it would be to throw away all that has been gained in the past few months.

I think that the timetable was made by your Lordships for what seemed right at the time—an experiment for six months. We see now that it has been, in the minds of many of your Lordships, a success; but now is not the time to decide definitively what is to happen. It would be a pity to lose these large audiences which have been built up now—those who are taking an interest in the business of your Lordships' House—and to have to create them again, beginning from scratch, perhaps in a few months' time. I hope that your Lordships will decide to support this Motion, which I beg to move.

Moved, That this House takes note of the First Report by the Select Committee [H.L. 213] and approves the continuation of the televising of the proceedings of the House on the basis of the current experiment until such time as the House takes a decision on whether or not to permit the permanent televising of its proceedings.—(Lord Soames.)

3.13 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil rose to move, as an amendment to the above Motion, to leave out all the words after ("and") and insert ("requests the Select Committee to use their best endeavours to produce a full and considered report on the television experiment, together with recommendations concerning the future of televising the proceedings of the House on a permanent basis, before the Christmas Recess.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move the amendment which stands in my name on the Order Paper. My noble friend Lord Soames has, as one would expect, moved the Motion in fair and lucid terms and I am sure that his words will be carefully weighed by your Lordships, whatever your present opinions may be.

I think that it is fair that I should remind your Lordships that on 27th November last year this House agreed to an experiment which was to be of six months' duration. In June, a month ago, the broadcasters asked that the experiment should continue. Today, 22nd July, six months almost to the day from the start of the experiment, it is suggested to your Lordships that it should continue and that it should continue until, first, the Select Committee has reported—and it is indicated to us in the report of the committee that the final report will not be available until after the Christmas Recess—and that meanwhile the experiment should continue until your Lordships are ready to make a final decision.

It is not, I think, unreasonable to comment that six months will have turned quite easily into 12 before that decision is made and that we shall at least have given the appearance of sliding smoothly from the temporary towards the permanent. This quite modest amendment says that we have had the experiment for which your Lordships asked, that we should now have a report and that we should have it, if at all possible, before Christmas.

I think this debate is a welcome opportunity to reflect upon what has happened during the period of the experiment. I should find it not all that ease to go along with my noble friend Lord Soames when he says that we should simply confine ourselves to the issue of whether the experiment goes on. I think that we should reflect upon the experience that we have had during the currency of it. It may be that some of your Lordships' opinions will even be helpful to the Select Committee when it comes to consider the matter.

For my part I must say that I have found the interest in your Lordships' proceedings greater than I had expected. I was surprised also that the broadcasts, particularly as the experiment went on, were as frequent as they were—much more so than I had expected. I also concede that the lights, though hideous in themselves, have been less intrusive than I had anticipated. I would make the same comment about the cameras, which I think have been admirably handled by those responsible.

However, the experiment has not removed or diminished other anxieties, particularly those which concern the question of editing. It has not removed either the suspicion that your Lordships' House is being used as a key to the door of another place; nor has it removed my own fear of the consequences for Parliament if it permits the permanent intrusion of this very strong and powerful medium.

If I may remind your Lordships, my noble friend Lord Soames in moving his Motion on 8th December 1983 conceded immediately the importance of editing. He said (at col. 1190 of Hansard): I am in no doubt that provided the business of the House that is transmitted is carefully selected and well edited, under strict ground rules designed to facilitate the imparting of information rat her than the knocking or mocking … the televising of this Chamber must do more good than harm".

The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, went rather further than that, and in doing so certainly had my agreement in what I thought was a very able speech in November of last year. He concerned himself with the need for parliamentary control and the reluctance of the broadcasters to concede it. He said: I am convinced that your Lordships should continue to have a substantial, indeed, a decisive, voice in the way in which the cameras are used and the way in which the proceedings are edited and transmitted. Some kind of parliamentary television unit for this purpose would, according to the initial memorandum submitted by the BBC and set out in the committee's report, 'raise grave questions of editorial responsibility and freedom to report'".

The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, also went on to say later in the same column: I have no doubt that in the course of the six months' experiment there will be the most impeccable exercise of editorial responsibility by the broadcasting authorities. I am not entirely convinced that this would necessarily be any guarantee for a permanent arrangement".

I share those anxieties to the full.

Of course, I admit that it is easy to see bias even where there is none. But the difficulty which I think broadcasters will always face in an attempt to be fair in a Chamber such as this, is that accusation is always, or almost always, short, sharp and exciting, whereas explanation is often—and your Lordships have frequent experience of this—very much the reverse.

I come to my next point, the fear that your Lordships' House is being used as the key to the House of Commons, for it is there, rather than here, that events which constitute good material for television occur. Concern as to whether the screening of those events will be beneficial, either for Parliament or for the nation, is in my view unlikely to be uppermost in the minds of broadcasters. They will in my opinion be more concerned to make immediate impact. It will be easy for them to overlook, to brush aside, interests of an institution such as Parliament, easy to prefer the dramatic to the truthful, the excitement of the moment to matters of more enduring worth. It is tempting indeed to use, and to be used by, men of violence and to give prominence and therefore support to those who look elsewhere than to Parliament or the courts for means of resolving differences.

By coincidence the Economist has a very interesting article on the subject this week. I quote: In their competition for viewers media-managers often forget that they have a power which they should restrain".

I have no wish to detain your Lordships for much longer. However, perhaps I may be permitted to finish with the comment that there is no need in the modern world to remind your Lordships of the dangers to human liberty which exist all over the world, but perhaps it is as well to remember the need to uphold and protect those institutions which have their foundations in that liberty.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion, to leave out all the words after ("and") and insert ("requests the Select Committee to use their best endeavours to produce a full and considered report on the television experiment, together with recommendations concerning the future of televising the proceedings of the House on a permanent basis, before the Christmas Recess.").—(Lord Peyton of Yeovil.)

3.25 p.m.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, in my view the advice given to noble Lords by the noble Lord, Lord Soames, was extremely wise: that we really should direct our attention to the two choices, one choice being that offered to your Lordships' House in the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Soames, and the other choice being that contained in the amendment just moved by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil. Therefore, I do not think that this is the occasion on which we should be debating the general issues which we have debated at length on many occasions in the past.

To be helpful to noble Lords in assessing the extent to which they will wish to heed the advice I shall presently give them on that choice, it may be fair if I make my position on the general issue crystal clear. I have always been in favour of the televising of Parliament, and the limited experiment we have had so far has reinforced me in that view. I take the view that television is now the public's principal source of information—information on everything; news, current affairs, foreign affairs, sport, politics and the weather. It is not the press; it is television. I think for Parliament to turn its back on the principal source of information would be very unwise indeed. I take the view that the arguments against it are on the whole the same arguments that were advanced year after year, years ago, against allowing the press to come into Parliament.

Let us go to these choices. First, I should like, as did the noble Lord, Lord Soames, to underline what I regard as the possible benefits which could accrue from the extension of this experiment under the terms of the noble Lord's Motion. First, I think it is well established that any damage done to the fabric of this very beautiful building is not done by the presence of the lights or the wiring; it is done by putting them up and taking them down. We are advised that that is the only source of possible damage to our roof and to the rest of the fabric of the building.

As the noble Lord, Lord Soames, wisely said, if, at a later stage, your Lordships' House is to take the view that we should continue with televising, it would seem to me to have been very wasteful indeed to have taken down all the apparatus and then to have to put it back again. It would be costly and also it would cause some damage to the fabric of the building. Therefore, I think it is better to leave the equipment here and, as it is left here, to allow it to be used within the terms of the Motion.

The second benefit of extending the experiment is that it would allow time for further experiment and possibly further improvements in the way in which it has been done. From the experiment already, the broadcasters, the BBC and ITV, have already become aware of the reservations that certain noble Lords have and they have already made some attempts to meet those reservations and to meet objections. An additional period would allow them time to make further attempts with regard to, for example, the lighting.

The Select Committee, as will no doubt be apparent when we, in the fullness of time, produce our full report, have had the benefit of seeing pictures produced with much less lighting, with more sensitive cameras. We have been very impressed with that. We have also had the opportunity of discussing the possibility of removing the fixtures—which the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, described as hideous. I do not quarrel with him. However, I think the intensity of the lighting is advantageous to some of us. Some of us find it difficult when the lighting goes down and we should quite like the lighting to stay up even when the House is not being televised. However, I agree that the lights are unsightly and it may well be that in the further period of the experiment the broadcasters will be able to find more acceptable ways of increasing—perhaps doing so to a lesser extent—the level of lighting in your Lordships' Chamber.

In addition, new technical advances are being made almost daily. We have had the opportunity of seeing new remote-control cameras and cameras of greater sensitivity, the use of which requires a less intense level of lighting. The further experiment will possibly allow the use of that. In addition, continuation of the experiment will allow further opportunities for the broadcasters, both BBC and ITV, to experiment in the use they make of the feed taken of our proceedings. Much has been done during the period of the experiment. It started with little pieces of broadcasts of actual debates, then small snippets in the news. Then we had the truly excellent reports of your Lordships' proceedings on Channel 4, which I think were very acceptable indeed. I think there are many opportunities for imaginative uses of the feed which have not yet been experimented with and which perhaps could be used by the broadcasters during this additional period, if we have one.

I would say this, my Lords. I believe that the experiment we embarked upon some months ago has, in part, already been successful. The experiment was not only to decide whether we liked it or whether we found it tolerable. It was also to find out whether the public were interested in it. It has always seemed to me that it would be pointless for us to go to the trouble of having our proceedings recorded on television if, then, no one watched it. It would be like composing music—maybe very good music—that no one ever hears. I believe that that part of the experiment has been conducted. We also wanted to know, in part, in relation to the experiment, whether the broadcasters themselves found it technically possible to broadcast the proceedings of your Lordships' Chamber in a manner that was acceptable to noble Lords. They have had that experiment. They have found it technically possible and also, I believe, desirable.

What have we discovered by the experiment so far? We have discovered, first of all, that programmes of your Lordships' House are popular. The viewing figures, which have been published recently and which will no doubt be published in great detail in due course in the Select Committee report, show that, without doubt, a very large number of viewers have actually chosen to watch programmes about your Lordships' House. They have not been compelled to do so because the programmes are on every channel. They have sought them out and have positively watched them. Secondly, there is substantial evidence already that the general public is now better informed of the nature of your Lordships' House and the manner in which it conducts its proceedings. Thirdly, I do not think that there is a shadow of doubt—

A noble Lord having been taken ill:

Lord Denham

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure for five minutes.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The sitting was suspended from 3.32 until 3.41 p.m.]