Improving access and combating ‘fake news’: how the televising of Parliament has changed over 30 years

Posted On: 
21st November 2019

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the televising of the House of Commons. John Angeli, head of the Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit, reflects on the changes over three decades

"On the busiest days up to 20 simultaneous live streams are published on parliamentlive.tv and more than 70 hours of material transmitted"
Credit: 
UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

For the Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit, the late John Grist is the closest we have to a Thomas Hansard figure, playing a key role in the establishment of a visual record of Commons proceedings.

After joining the RAF during the Second World War at the age of 17 he went on to become a key figure in the BBC’s reporting of politics, leading on their party conference coverage and creating programmes such as ‘Who Goes Home’ and ‘Gallery’, on which he became Editor.

Struck by Aneurin Bevan’s call in November 1959 for broadcasting to be allowed in the Commons, John was one of a number of journalists who continued to press for televising over the coming decades. In 1963 he walked through the Chamber with the then-Leader of the House Iain Macleod explaining where the cameras could be positioned.

25 years later he was pulled out of retirement to act as advisor to the Select Committee on Televising of Proceedings of the House. After 18 months of weekly meetings to agree plans for the eight-month experiment, cameras were finally switched on following the State Opening ceremony on 21 November 1989.

22 years later the BBC, ITV and Sky News pulled out of the funding arrangements. Since 2011 Parliament’s Broadcasting Unit has assumed full responsibility for sound and vision coverage of both Houses, as well as the delivery of Chamber and Committee coverage to BBC Parliament and domestic and international broadcasters.

I like to think we share an anniversary with Tim Berners-Lee who around the same date (the exact day is uncertain) conducted the first successful test for delivering information over the internet. Using the same technology 12 years later both Houses embarked on a new path and began experimenting with delivery of video over the internet. The business recognised that while television had huge reach, as a medium it could not scale to provide coverage of all Chamber and Committee proceedings. The internet was the only way to truly open up public access to the work of both Houses. 

Between 2006 and 2008 cameras were rolled out across the majority of committee rooms in a project led by one of my predecessors in post, Barbara Long. The live transmission of all proceedings via Parliament’s online video service (parliamentlive.tv) was an extraordinary commitment, turning Parliament into one of the biggest public facing video services in the world. 

On the busiest days up to 20 simultaneous live streams are published on parliamentlive.tv and more than 70 hours of material transmitted. This outcome is much closer to the vision some Members had – even in the 1960s – for televised coverage. 

Digital access and distribution is our new focus. By moving to a 20-channel delivery system we have seen a dramatic increase in the take up of committee coverage by media organisations. At the same time the introduction of a new self-service video download tool on parliamentlive.tv has seen requests for video copies rise from an annual rate of 500 or so to 50,000 in the first year.

Over the coming months we aim to further re-configure parliamentlive.tv so that high quality audio/video coverage will be available in a similar fashion for all local and national digital media and others to clip. This approach represents a further step-change in access, recognising the significant shift we are seeing in audiences from television to online. It also reflects the importance we place on real-time publication in a period where information from trusted sources needs to be made available quickly and easily.

Looking back at the debate around televising in the 1965 I was particularly struck by a vision set out by W.F. Deedes, Conservative MP for Ashford: “…the whole of the proceedings should be televised and transmitted initially by piped line to subscribers. Technically, this is quite feasible. The subscribers would include universities, institutions, newspaper offices both in London and in the provinces; indeed, anybody or person willing to subscribe. It would be open to all.” I’m sure John Grist would approve.

John Angeli is head of the Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit