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Word in Westminster: the perils of an unmuted microphone

Word in Westminster: the perils of an unmuted microphone

Vaughan Gething was caught out by an unmuted microphone this week

3 min read

Alain Tolhurst on why some people are finding life tough in the digital age

The biggest story this week was the approval of the ‘virtual PMQs’ session, which went off without too much of a hitch in the Commons. Poor old David Mundell was “unable to connect” and Peter Bone was cut off mid-question, but overall it seemed to work ok.

However, it hasn’t been as smooth in all parts of the UK. The first fully-fledged Parliamentary Zoom gaffe took place in the Welsh Assembly, after health minister Vaughan Gething was caught on a hot mic delivering a four-letter outburst at one of his own Labour colleagues. Plaid Cymru suggested he be sacked – steady on, there are bigger things to worry about – but he was forced into a humbling apology, and a salutary lesson, if one was needed, to MUTE YOUR MICROPHONES!

Although it’s not just politicians who need to heed such advice. Despite the daily briefings for journalists with Number 10 moving to conference calls weeks ago, almost every day someone does not switch off their microphone, giving a fascinating insight into the Lobby while the Press Gallery remains virtually empty.

As well as the usual sounds of barking dogs, people washing up, feral children failing to be home-schooled, there have also been hacks helpfully reading out their story lists to editors on another line for rivals to hear, and even a possible toilet flush. But the top moment was an extremely illuminating conversation about the merits, and downsides, of moving a trellis. For some, getting back to analogue reporting can’t come soon enough.

Not all MPs have embraced the digital revolution however, with a thrusting up-and-coming backbencher representing Islington North, think his name was Bernard something, choosing not to take up the offer to appear via video-link and question the health secretary in person, despite being – at age 70 – in the higher risk category for coronavirus and advised to shield.

Another MP who chose to head into the chamber rather than dial in was the DUP’s Jim Shannon, every Westminster-watcher’s favourite Parliamentarian, who revealed that’s because he’s not quite up to speed with the cutting-edge tech, announcing to the House he only learned how to use text-messaging, in widespread use since the mid-1990s, “about two years ago”. 

But for those who did appear over video there were a whole host of new protocols to learn about, with the Speaker Lindsay Hoyle keen to make sure standards on dress were adhered to, pointedly warning Lichfield’s flamboyant Michael Fabricant to re-think his plan to wear pink shorts on camera. The Lib Dem’s Jamie Stone perfected the ‘newsreader’ look, twinning his tie and suit jacket with pyjama bottoms, but Labour’s Stephen Kinnock went the whole hog, tweeting a snap of himself “suited and booted” and standing to attention to ask his question for no discernible good reason. MPs were also told to avoid distracting backgrounds, the Speaker warning “the journalists will be having a field day”. Surely not?

The advice perhaps didn’t get to everyone though, given Iain Blackford’s distracting signed football collection, or Nick Fletcher’s wallpaper. Barry Gardiner also appeared to be Zooming from a Premier Inn, while the less said about Chris Grayling’s curtains the better…

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Read the most recent article written by Alain Tolhurst - Labour Is Braced For The Prospect Of A “Game-Changer” By-Election In Scotland


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