Different view of politics
We got used, over the years, to seeing Parliament from one perspective. Head and shoulders shots of speakers in debates, then Mr Speaker… and a wide shot, when desperation strikes.
After a while, the innovation of showing cutaways for people named in debates was introduced, and the world continued to spin in its usual course. We could (sometimes) see who was being talked about. But there was still no sense of interaction or of the flow of the debate.
This is more than a little odd because, compared with most other assemblies around the world, Westminster manages to "do" debate pretty well. Others - including the US Congress – restrict the broadcasters to mug-shots, for fear of showing how very few attendees there are. The result for the most part is absolutely stultifying, with speeches made not to contribute to a debate but rather to be "read into the record". Terrible television, every time, guaranteed.
But an experiment that started in the Lords has changed all that. This week the Speaker of the Commons, Michael Martin, has agreed to change the rules to allow the cameras to follow the normal flow of the action, and to show reactions from around the chamber. It’s not the same thing as being there yourself, but for the first time the outside world is getting a real sense of the place – of the intimacy of the Westminster chambers and the closeness of the protagonists, standing feet away from each other across the debating chamber.
Nothing can make an empty chamber look full, or cheer up a dull and poorly made speech. But our experience so far (the experiment came in at the start of term, and has now been made permanent) is that following the debate as the director sees it, and seeing MPs’ and Lords’ reactions, is going to make Parliament a lot more watchable.
We’re still some way from complete freedom to capture the whole picture. Protests in the public gallery are still "off limits" to the cameras. The cameras on the Despatch Box, where the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition square off to each other, are still so high up as to miss the "in your face" nature of the conflict that is Prime Minister’s Questions. But the million or so viewers to BBC Parliament, and the many more who watch it on the news and in political programming, are closer now to seeing Parliament as it really is than ever before.