After the first regular BBC TV broadcasts in 1930, it took the House of Commons 60 years to agree to televise its proceedings. Proposals to do so were discussed on a regular basis from the 1960s onwards, but repeatedly rejected; as late as 1985 the idea was voted down by 275 to 263. Not until 1990 did MPs vote in favour of making the broadcasts permanent.
One theme constantly reiterated by MPs opposed to televising the Chamber was that TV cameras would fundamentally change the nature of Parliament, encouraging Members to think of themselves as performers and to reach for soundbites rather than arguments. Gerald Howarth put it this way during the 1985 debate: ‘The television cameras would intrude; the intimacy of the Chamber would be lost. It would become a studio or theatre. The press would interpret our proceedings… it would choose the little nuggets that it wanted to televise.’
Nearly four decades on, it would be easy to regard Howarth’s fellow sceptics – among whose number was former Labour PM Jim Callaghan – as mere reactionaries and Luddites, foolishly trying to keep the modern world at bay. In fact, some of the predictions made by the anti-TV faction have come true. In particular, it seems hard to deny that there has been a steady decline in the sophistication of the rhetoric used in the House of Commons. Moral exhibitionism has crept in where once there were great, poetic orations.
This was brought home to me forcefully last week, by a clip of Matt Hancock using a question to the Prime Minister to denounce Andrew Bridgen for his increasingly peculiar comments about Covid-19 vaccines. On the substance Mr Hancock was broadly correct, and yet there was something very tiresome about his phrasing. Perhaps it was the invocation of ‘offence’, with the strong implication that to give offence was ipso facto to be in the wrong.