There are no plaques or badges indicating who sits where in the press benches in the House of Commons chamber, but a junior reporter gets it wrong at their peril. When I first became a parliamentary reporter, I made the grave error of going for the middle of the front row at Prime Minister’s Question Time, as it seemed to be empty. I soon found out that, due to turf battles fought by journalists generations ago, it belonged to the Times. I was turfed out with patient understanding. ‘Don’t worry,’ my boss told me afterwards. ‘Everyone is allowed one career mistake.’
Yet if I had stayed in my office watching on television, I would probably have had a more informed assessment of the farrago. For all its theatrical allure, PMQs is a made-for-TV production. The chamber now looks like a television studio, with dangling microphones and cameras everywhere. PMQs point is to produce (at the very most) a minute’s worth of television. And as I have come to understand, how it seems in the chamber and on television can be distinctly different. In fact, they can in effect be regarded as two different occasions.
Within a second of walking into the chamber, you can see why there’s such a scramble for seats. It is perhaps the greatest political show on earth, and the atmosphere is beyond comparison with the sanitised one-desk-each setup in continental parliaments. The Commons chamber has its own psyche. It is a beast far more than the sum of its parts. Cries for blood, howls of derision, schoolboy insults and killer put-downs: all human life is there. And not a fraction of this is reflected on television.
Hence the point of the seats. The television viewer sees the ‘doughnut’ around the main speaker, the poor souls to the side and behind who have to perform facial contortions. Ed Miliband has the job of doing this for Gordon Brown, pulling quizzical expressions when David Cameron makes a point or rolling his eyes in mock exasperation. It is a strange sight. After attending Oxford, the LSE and Harvard, Mr Miliband has become the highest-paid mime artist in Britain. Beyond the camera’s view, the faces of the other MPs can be entirely different.
Crucially, television channels have to take what they’re given by Parliament. There may be cameras everywhere, but the mixing is done in-house with only one feed going out to the television stations. No channel could, for example, run a split screen with Cameron on one side and Brown on the other. So outside the doughnut, MPs can rest safe in the knowledge that they will be out of view at certain times and can lay on a sideshow which only those in the chamber can see.
When Charles Kennedy stood to up speak, for example, Dennis Skinner — who has sat directly opposite the Liberal Democrat leader since the Middle Ages — would extend his right hand and shake it, a joke about the then Liberal Democrat leader’s now-famous drinking problem. The camera would be on Kennedy, so Mr Skinner ran no risk of being detected. But the rest of the House saw it, and roared with laughter. When the short-haired, petite Yvette Cooper speaks, certain older Tories have been known to shout ‘Boy! Sit down, boy!’ Another in-House joke.
Those in the press gallery can judge all sorts, from how quickly David Cameron’s hair is thinning to whether Charles Clarke has found any friends yet. Until Mr Brown took over, Ed Balls had to stand at the back — a sign of his low standing among his fellow Labour MPs. There is always a squeeze, but a herd-like system of seniority operates to provide spaces. Cameras never catch how certain MPs can wander up to where their space on the bench should be, aim their bottoms at the non-existent space, start their descent, and within half a second a space magically appears.
But for all its immense box office value, all this is irrelevant when judging the impact of PMQs. One can walk out of the chamber judging Gordon Brown’s performance atrocious because he failed to resonate with the back benchers, while David Cameron may have tickled his party pink. But all that matters, externally, is what the television viewers see — and if the Prime Minister held his own in those few seconds that make it on to the six o’clock news, it is judged a draw. Often Mr Brown’s successes are undetected by television as the microphones cannot pick up the strange, magical resonance produced by enough MPs crying ‘more!’
Those much-coveted seats at US conventions can be especially treacherous for journalists, as I found when sitting directly behind Sarah Palin as she addressed the Republicans in Minneapolis. I could see her autocue, and hence how she mangled the lines. It spelled out ‘new-clear’ so she would not mispronounce nuclear as ‘nucular’. I went away thinking it excruciating, but had not seen how this former newscaster worked the cameras with her smiles, gestures and winks. And in that way, I saw a false production. The best place to watch a US convention is from in front of the television screen, because this is where the voters see it.
I no longer have a permanent seat in the Commons and perch myself in the gods, with the visitors, when I go to the chamber — and when doing a blog for Coffee House, it’s a useless vantage point. You can’t see who’s speaking under the balcony, you miss a good put-down, and need a pair of opera glasses to spot the more obscure Liberal Democrats called to speak. I now sit with a Sky Plus control in hand, able to rewind to catch a quote. I miss the drama, the schoolboy jokes and the Kremlinology of the Labour back benches. But if your task is to assess how it comes across to the public, then sitting in front of one’s television is the best view in the House.