A minor story that emerged (perhaps a tangent to a tangent?) from last week’s announcement regarding the expansion of London Heathrow Airport caught my attention. As the matter was being discussed in the House of Commons, Labour MP John McDonnell, an opponent of the plan (and representative for one of the local constituencies), after arguing that there should be a vote in Parliament on whether to proceed (with the delicious flourish: ‘Will there be a vote, and why not?‘, listened to the reply, interrupted, rose from his seat and, walking down the steps, grabbed the mace (an important constitutional feature, the symbol of royal authority and of Parliament being in session : explained here) and placed it on a bench.
At least, I think that’s what happened. See, if you look at it in Hansard (here, at column 367(, the official record, all we get is this:
Mr. Hoon: […] Necessarily, when judgments have to be made about the interests of the country, those decisions have to be made, however difficult they are— [ Interruption. ]
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) must— [Interruption.]
John McDonnell , Member for Hayes and Harlington , having conducted himself in a grossly disorderly manner, was named by the Deputy Speaker.
So how do I know that he picked up the club-like shiny thing and carried it away? Well, I saw it, on videos like this one from the BBC. (Do go watch it). And here’s another from Sky News. However, if the BBC and other broadcasters had been following the rules (read them here) in relation to parliamentary coverage, they should not have shown the incident, but cut away as soon as possible. We would have relied instead on neither the official record nor the video, but on written newspaper reports (like this charming one in the New York Times or this colourful one in the Times). Don’t forget that there are no photo-cameras in the Commons, so newspapers take their pictures from TV stills. Indeed, as confirmed in this PA report, officials in the House of Commons are unhappy about the broadcast and rebroadcast of the offending footage and are considering further action.
Frankly, I find this all a bit silly. I can appreciate that the official record might be rather terse (Hansard does represent a cleaned-up version of proceedings), but the broadcasting rules are beyond ludicrous and should be reassessed. As it happens, this is the first time since TV broadcasting began that the Mace has been interfered with, and I’m glad that the events were captured and broadcast. Like it or not, what happened happened, and requiring camera operators to collaborate in a silly game of hide-and-seek is unnecessary. I can understand how there can be practices like not showing streakers at sporting events (as the coverage may just encourage others), and I can see how there may have been some concern in the early days of parliamentary broadcasting that the cameras would encourage members to behave irresponsibly, but let’s face it, politicians are perfectly able to make a fool of themselves even when their interventions are in order! Parliament, including MPs acting out of order, is of genuine interest to the public. Indeed, parliamentary protest, whether it be filibustering, procedural tricks, silent protests or, yes, mace-manhandling, has a long tradition. Now that we take it for granted that the unedited words of members are broadcast (meaning that there is already an inconsistency between Hansard and the viewing experience), bowdlerising the TV feed (and it’s one set of cameras that everyone uses) for this particular reason is unnecessary. This is of course not the only restriction – there are lots of other rules about reaction shots and cutaways and close-ups that are supposedly designed to protect the dignity of Parliament – but I think dignity, in this case, is something that is primarily the duty of the members of Parliament (who are not unwilling to engage in undignified behaviour, cameras or no cameras). There does need to be a balance – but a more sensible balance – between preventing misleading or sensationalised coverage on one hand and creating a deliberately false image on the other. The present rules do not strike that balance.
The model I’d prefer has been referred to as the ‘gallery surrogate’ model (supported by the BBC as discussed here), where the general intention is to produce a video feed that is, more or less, similar to what someone sitting in the gallery would see. (The Scottish Parliament apparently does it this way). Given the technological resources available to us, this is certainly easier than it would have been in the past, but more importantly, there is a strong argument for it based on accountability – the reason for gallery access is to allow the citizen to watch their laws being made, warts and all. Extending that gallery perspective to citizens who, for whatever reason, cannot attend in person, is valuable. The cameras are already in the Chamber, so it’s not like the televising-trials debate, where the principle of televising is not established.
At the last review of the broadcasting rules, the relevant committee (Broadcasting) found the following:
In the event of disorder in the Chamber the rules of coverage state that the television director should normally focus on the Chair. We feel that this should remain the case and that the reaction of the Member being reprimanded or that of other Members present should not be shown. If the television director were to cut away from the Speaker, there is a risk that statements with procedural significance could be missed.
I don’t really find that the most persuasive of arguments, especially given the ability of most half-decent directors to combine video and audio. It’s not rocket science.
End rant. If you’re interested in the background to the broadcasting of parliamentary proceedings in the UK, there’s a wonderful history here, prepared by the House of Commons Information Office.