When the late Ian Gow, member for Eastbourne, stood up and made a speech in the House of Commons on November 21, 1989, he wasn’t just setting for another argument, he was making television history too.
His was the first to be broadcast live on TV from the Palace of Westminster. Ironic, in some ways given how he had argued so vigorously against it. Nonetheless, a few months later, he and MPs agreed to make the move permanent.
They laughed and joked at the time about the advice they were receiving on styling and which ties to wear for the cameras. Beards were trimmed and new haircuts sprouted. Suits were smarter, shirts were crisper, dresses more expensive.
They all stepped up again once broadcasters started transmitting each wrinkle and stain in HD. During PMQs, important announcements like the Budget, or on matters grave and solemn, look not just at those giving the speeches but the placing of colleagues by gender, colour or creed. Consider the colours of the tie, red for in charge, blue for serious and purple – always purple for finances and trust. All a science, all ‘managed’ by media advisers.
But whatever the theatre, however diluted the authenticity given the hours of training that goes into presentation, annunciation and more, there can be no doubt that allowing TV cameras into parliament has been a good thing. A good thing for broadcasters, media organisations, and a good thing for the modern politician too.
Most of all, though, it has been good for the electorate. Good for our education, good for our understanding, good for our power of reasoning and above all, good for our right of choice. Thanks to television, more than any other medium, we can make up our own minds as to whether we consider someone to be living up to our exception, needs and want.
We did, after all, put them there.
It took 11 commons debates across 22 years before MPs finally agreed to allow the cameras in. But the move has been transformational in the way we the viewing public can access the work they do on our behalf.
The same can be said to of the Scottish Parliament and other assemblies. Thanks to the internet, at local authority level too, even if the figures are relatively low, by allowing chamber business to be streamed across the internet gives us proper open and accountable governance. We can choose how much we wish to digest, but the key point is, we get to choose.
And that’s what’s being missed by the politicians of Westminster just now when they play to the galleries over which live television election debates they will or won’t be a party too. The whole reason for these debates even being considered is to allow us our right to choose. To choose whether or not we watch, whether we participate and ultimately, who we choose to elect.
In 2010, more than 9.4 million people tuned into ITV for Britain’s first televised leaders debate between Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg. A further 4.1 million viewers tuned into digital television and simulcasts for the second hosted by Sky News. The third pulled in 8.4 million viewers, around a third of the available TV audience that night.
Fast forward to 2014 and more than two million people across Britain tuned into BBC1 and BBC2 for Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling’s head to head on the issue of Scotland’s independence. Just 843,000 of that were in Scotland, the rest came from people elsewhere interested in the subject matter, whether they could vote or not. It also generated 255, 559 Tweets associated with the programme.
STV too claimed a startling 920,000 viewers in their first debate shown in Scotland alone, and 500,000 attempts to view online, generating more than 2000 related Tweets a minute at its peak. During a Yes v No broadcast in a partnership with Facebook, more than one million people visited the STV News Facebook page.
Politicians of every hue agreed that Scotland was the most politically engaged and aware of any nation on the planet at that moment in time. It could be argued the nation, less than a year on, still is, at least if the Ashcroft Polls are too be believed, And that’s before you consider the activity in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
There has arguably never been more interest in British politics since the exit of Margaret Thatcher on November 28, 1990, not even the fall of Tony Blair. And certainly never while technological advances in broadcast and online media have opened up potentially the largest audience in UK political history willing, nae, demanding our political leaders set out their stalls.
This is the most important UK-wide vote of moderns times and the electorate should have the opportunity to hear what the politicians have got tho offer us. It’s not a vanity contest, it is an expectation. The party leaders don’t just have a moral obligation to engage in a series of debates, in these multi-platform times, they have a duty.
Taking part is no longer a request, or an option for those who have their careers on the line.
It is a democratic imperative.