COMMUNICATIONS

A new public image

Television is changing British MPs’ behavior

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 5 1990
COMMUNICATIONS

A new public image

Television is changing British MPs’ behavior

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 5 1990

A new public image

COMMUNICATIONS

Television is changing British MPs’ behavior

Throughout her long career, one of Margaret Thatcher’s most potent weapons has been a piercing voice that cuts through the noise of political debate. But during the past several weeks, since television cameras began broadcasting the proceedings of Britain’s venerable House of Commons, members of Parliament have found themselves in the unusual position of urging the Prime Minister to speak up. In fact, Thatcher has lowered her voice so far that even the Commons Speaker, Bernard Weatherill, complained that he could not understand her. “Gone are the swivelling eyeballs, gone the screams of rage at the Labour Party,” noted columnist Matthew Parris in The Times. “Her voice is now so soft that you can only just hear her.”

Both her allies and her foes contend that Thatcher has consciously toned down her public style in order to present a better TV image. And her remarkable transformation is just one of the changes brought about since TV cameras began broadcasting from the Commons on Nov. 21. Now, many MPs are dressing better, getting their hair cut more often—and they are

generally being more polite to each other during debates. Despite dire warnings from traditionalists that TV would encourage rowdy behavior and ruin the intimate atmosphere of the chamber, most observers say that TV has actually improved the politicians’ performance. Said Guy Cumberbatch, an applied psychologist at Aston University in Birmingham who is studying the impact of TV on the Commons: “It does seem that MPs are better behaved, at least so far.”

Britain’s Commons has traditionally resisted the use of TV. Although it is arguably the most famous chamber of democracy in the world, the seven-century-old Commons is also a deeply conservative club whose members have always been suspicious of outsiders. Other major legislatures have for many years accepted TV as a routine part of their proceedings. Japan’s parliament began regular broadcasts as long ago as 1955, Canada’s House of Commons admitted TV cameras in 1977 and even Britain’s House of Lords allowed cameras into the red chamber in 1985 without apparent ill effects. But the British Commons rejected TV eight times before finally accepting it by 318 votes to

264 in February, 1988.

After that, a committee of MPs examined how other legislatures handle the presence of TV. They paid particular attention to Ottawa, but concluded that the rules there, which allow the cameras to show only the Speaker or the member who is addressing the House, were “unduly restrictive.” As a result, the personnel operating the eight remote-controlled cameras installed in the Commons chamber are allowed to show a greater variety of shots than is permitted by the Canadian rules.

At the same time, though, the British broadcasters face other problems. Unlike Canadian MPs, who sit at their own desks in the Commons, most British members do not have assigned seats on the green benches that line their chamber. When they are called on to speak, they can appear almost anywhere, forcing camera operators to hunt frantically for them in order to focus their cameras in the right place.

Despite their initial reservations, British MPs quickly adapted to the requirements of TV. Some of them attended seminars, run by private consulting firms, aimed at teaching them the tricks of looking better on TV. One London agency, called Colour Me Beautiful, offered daylong sessions for about $300. Many MPs began to pay more attention to their appearance. Even some politicians with doubts about the whole exercise acknowledge that it has changed their habits. Roger Gale, a Conservative backbencher who has been critical of the way the Commons has been televised, said he has given up wearing striped shirts, which tend to shimmer on TV. “I went out and bought four plain blue shirts,” he said in an interview.

Officially, TV has been allowed inside the Commons for only a nine-month trial period at a cost of about $2.2 million (shared equally between broadcasters and Parliament). MPs are scheduled to vote by the end of July on making it a permanent fixture at Westminster. Few observers doubt that they will decide to keep the cameras. Commons TV has proved popular with the public, attracting audiences as big as one million for Thatcher’s twice-weekly appearances to answer questions from the opposition. And even one of the most determined opponents of parliamentary TV, Conservative MP Ian Gow, acknowledged that he will almost certainly be in a minority when the vote is taken. “In my view, it just encourages members to behave like thugs and gangsters,” Gow declared in an interview. “But the fact is that most people like to be seen on TV.” That alone may well guarantee that the politicians will vote to keep it.

ANDREW PHILLIPS in London