Virtually Impossible: The transition to a hybrid Parliament
John Angelli is the head of the Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit. He explains how his team rose to the unique challenges posed by Coronavirus this year.
On the evening of 30 March, as a result of the pandemic, the Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit was asked if it could support hybrid sittings in the House of Commons chamber.
This was a daunting challenge for the unit, which is normally responsible for live televised coverage of chambers and committees in both Houses, made available to BBC Parliament and other media organisations, as well as Parliament’s online video service, parliamentlive.tv.
However, we had recently succeeded in broadcasting the first public select committee using Zoom - the Health and Social Care Committee on 26 March. It was partly due to the success of those two back-to-back HSCC sessions that we had the confidence to crack on with the challenge of a hybrid chamber.
On the eve of the first hybrid sitting the team was in no doubt about the importance of getting it right
An intense period of work followed, with fantastic support from the clerks, sound and vision contractor Bow Tie TV, and an external advisor. A week later, on Monday 6 April, the plan was tabled and approved. By the time the equipment had arrived we had less than a week before the first rehearsal on 17 April. In that time our suppliers built a video conference hub in 7 Millbank, integrated the audio video output of Zoom into our broadcast infrastructure (including the chamber sound system) and linked the coverage onto newly mounted screens in the chamber.
On the eve of the first hybrid sitting the team was in no doubt about the importance of getting it right. Members, both in the Chamber and in their constituencies, had to be able to see and hear each other clearly. Hansard would be relying on good sound quality for transcription purposes while broadcasters were reliant on our coverage. The team held its nerve and showed a great deal of bravery to make it work.
Three weeks later we went on to work with the House of Lords to build a similar solution for the Lords chamber. In some ways, from an operational point of view, this has been more challenging, with hybrid sittings extending across both scrutiny and legislation. In September the broadcasting team worked with the Lords to create a hybrid Lords Grand Committee where up to 50 members have contributed via Zoom in some sessions.
To add to the complexity a planned move of the Commons and Lords TV galleries from 7 Millbank to Canon Row had to go ahead over August – this represented the biggest change in broadcast arrangements since 2002 and took place mid-pandemic.
Since May we have been working to improve the underlying technology of the hybrid chambers. The switch to this new technology happened over the autumn period and amongst other things lifts the cap on the number of members who can participate.
Meanwhile back on the committee corridor work has continued apace since March to improve capacity and flexibility. At Whitsun new technology was introduced in the Wilson, Thatcher and Boothroyd rooms to allow hybrid sittings to take place and rooms 15 and 16 were adapted to support virtual only meetings. Rooms 5, 6 and 8 as well as the Macmillan room have also been upgraded to support hybrid meetings and 15 and 16 will follow suit in the New Year.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank my team, the Broadcasting Unit, as well as our sound and vision contractor and other key suppliers who have all worked tirelessly through recesses and term time alike to keep the show on the road. The dedication to supporting both Houses during this tumultuous period has been truly remarkable.
John Angeli is the director of Parliamentary Audio/Video.