TV drama that’s been running for 20 years

When I came into the Commons in 1979, only radio broadcasting was allowed and that had only been going on a regular basis for a year.

People could listen to what was said, but couldn’t see what was happening.

But the fact that our words were going out over the ether really made very little difference to MPs’ behaviour. It was noisy a lot of the time, and like bedlam on occasions.

Parliaments abroad had for years before been televised. In the 1980s there was a growing call for the Commons to do the same.

After two years of deliberation the House finally voted for its proceedings to be permanently televised in the early summer of 1989. I was one of big majority in favour.

The Commons was not a private club. We were there to represent our constituents. We had to allow the cameras in, and let the public judge for themselves, warts and all.

Full TV broadcasting began 20 years ago this Monday, on 19 July 1990.

So what difference has it made?

Television no more accurately replicates the reality of a live event than radio. It gives an impression. (How often has some nice, usually elderly lady, told me how much better I look in real life than on the TV – to which I reply that I’m glad it’s that way round!) I doubt that TV has done a great deal for MPs’ reputation.

Many have asked me why so few MPs attend many of the debates, with the implication that all the rest of the 650 must be skiving.

The answer is that MPs have many other things to do – hundreds are involved every day in Committees.

Others will be doing their constituency work – where the work load is now exponentially more than it was thirty years ago.

It would have been good if “before and after” attendance records of the Commons had been kept. They have not.

But there were many occasions before TV broadcasting when debates were sparsely attended – and that was at a time when the key focus was on the Chamber alone; there were virtually no Select Committees at all.

Winston Churchill’s biographer Sir Martin Gilbert has observed that some of Churchill’s now most celebrated speeches in the 1930s warning of the Nazi threat were made to indifferent, near-empty Houses.

And, though it may not appear like this, the House is generally more orderly, and less noisy.

There is one consequence of TV broadcasting, not anticipated at the time, which I greatly regret. This is the terminal decline in systematic reporting of Parliamentary proceedings – as opposed to politics – by the newspapers.

The paradox is that the public may now be less well informed than they were, especially on a vast range of legislation which though important is not especially partisan.

But there’s nothing that can be done about that, and newspapers are now fighting for their lives, not as a consequence of television but because of the internet.

As for the public having a window on what we do in their name, the televising of Parliament is here to stay.

Author: Jack Straw

Jack Straw was elected as the MP for Blackburn in 1979 and is currently the Secretary of State for Justice.

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