At present almost 60 sovereign-states provide some television coverage of parliamentary bodies. Among them are countries as diverse in political organization as Australia, Germany, and Japan, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Russia, China, Denmark, and Egypt. With varying allocations of control of the coverage between media entities and chamber officials, countries provide this form of televised information to citizens in response to three related perceptions on the part of governmental institutions: a lack of public familiarity with Parliament and its distinctness from the Executive; a lack of public knowledge of citizenship; and the desire to form channels of communication between the public and politicians that can avoid the mediation of media owners and professionals.

In 1944, the British War Cabinet argued that "proceedings in Parliament were too technical to be understood by the ordinary listener who would be liable to get a quite false impression of the business transacted." It favoured professional journalists as expert mediators between public and politics. Winston Churchill regarded television as "a red conspiracy" because it had a robotic component that combined undifferentiated mass access with machine-like reproduction. But debates over televising proceedings in Britain were common from 1965, with twelve separate parliamentary proposals discussed between 1985 and 1988. Arguments for TV rested on the medium's capacity both to involve the public in making politicians accountable and to involve politicians in making the public interested. Arguments against coverage centred on the intrusiveness of broadcasting equipment, the trivialisation through editing of the circumstance and pomp integral to British politics, the undue attention to the major parties and to adversarial division that TV would encourage, and the concern that established procedures and conduct would change to suit television. Channel Four screened a program called Their Lordships' House from 1985. The Lower House rejected a proposal for coverage that year, but trial Commons telecasts commenced in late 1989, despite the then Prime Minister's opposition. The public had become an audience that must be made into a citizen. Consider the position enunciated by contemporary British Conservative politician Norman St. John-Stevas: "To televise parliament would, at a stroke, restore any loss it has suffered to the new mass media as the political education of the nation."

This was already a given elsewhere. In postwar Germany, televising the Bundestag was said to be critical for democratising the public. Proceedings came to Netherlands television in 1962, via three types of coverage: live for topical issues, summaries of less important debates, and "flashes" on magazine programs. The first years of the system saw considerable public disaffection because Members of Parliament (MPs) tended towards dormancy, absence, novel-reading, and jargon on-camera. Over time, Members came to attend at the same time as producers, viewer familiarity with procedural norms grew, and ratings increased on occasions of moment. In France, it was two years after President Pompidou resignedly intoned that: "Whether one likes it or not, television is regarded as the Voice of France," that a clutch of broadcasting reforms required certain stations to cover the National Assembly. It is no surprise, similarly, that during the extraordinary events in Czechoslovakia at the end of 1989, the opposition Civic Forum made the televising of Parliament one of its principal demands.

Sometimes such moves have amounted to a defensive reaction, at others to a positive innovation. The European Parliament was directly elected from 1979. It has used TV coverage for the past decade in search of attention and legitimacy. Recordings and live material are available to broadcasters without cost, to encourage a stronger image for the new Europe. Second-order coverage of the Parliament had always been minimal, due to lack of media interest, but it increased markedly with live TV material. The rules on coverage are more liberal than elsewhere, even encouraging reaction shots and film of the public gallery. When Ian Paisley, a Northern Ireland Member, pushed in front of Margaret Thatcher to display a poster in 1986, and interrupted the Pope's speech in 1988, his demonstration was broadcast and made available on tape. One thinks here of the chariots that go into the Indian countryside with video recordings of political rallies and speeches to be shown on screens to five thousand at a sitting. Direct TV politics can be a special event. Uganda adopted colour television to coincide with a meeting of the Organisation of African Unity, and the first live broadcast of the Soviet Union's new Congress of People's Deputies in 1989 attracted a record two hundred million viewers across a dozen time zones, a 25% increase on the previous figure. A side-effect was assisting in the formation of a new image overseas. For American journalists, televising parliamentary sessions helped to bring the USSR into the field of political normalcy.

In the United States, despite the introduction of a Bill in 1922 providing for electronic media coverage of Congress, with a trial the following year, there were no regular radio broadcasts of proceedings until the signing of the Panama Canal Treaties of 1978. The opening of the Eightieth Congress in 1947 was carried on television, but this was mostly proscribed until 1971. The major drive for change stemmed from the results of public opinion polls from the early 1970s suggesting that politicians were held in low esteem. Regular closed-circuit trials were instituted in 1977. Following successful coverage of the Connecticut and Florida State legislatures, the House of Representatives allowed routine broadcasts from 1979. After extensive tests, the Senate agreed to the same in 1986. The service is available via Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-SPAN and C-SPAN II), which also broadcasts House and Senate Committees, Prime Minister's Question Time from the British House of Commons, and an array of public-policy talkfests.

The political process has also been modified by the use made of new communications technologies, designed to break down mediation between politicians and publics in North America. Direct contact between Congresspeople and their constituents has positioned them at the leading edge of applications of cable, satellite, video cassette recording, and computer-aided interaction. Alaska, for example, has a Legislative Teleconferencing Network that permits committees to receive audio and computer messages from citizens. Ross Perot linked six American cities by satellite in 1992 to convene a "nationwide electronic rally," a metonym for the "electronic town hall" which was to administer the country should he become President; he would debate policies with Congress and have citizens respond through modem or telephone.

The most spectacular recent examples of U.S. parliamentary coverage are the Senate Judiciary Committee's Judge Thomas Confirmation Hearing of 1991 and the appearance of Oliver North before a Congressional Committee in the 1987 hearings into funding the Contras in Nicaragua. The evidence about Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill was so "popular" that its competition, Minnesota versus Toronto, drew the lowest ratings ever for a baseball play-off. North's evidence had five times as many viewers as General Hospital, its closest daytime soap opera competitor. Most commentators on that hearing clearly read it intertextually, referring to acting, entertainment, and stars in their analysis. CBS actually juxtaposed images of North with Rambo and Dirty Harry, emphasising the lone warrior against an establishment state that would not live up to its responsibilities. North assisted this process in his promise "to tell the truth, the good, the bad and the ugly." Much media attention was given to Reagan's words of admiration to North: "This is going to make a great movie one day." The reaction of the public was similarly remarkable. Polls which showed that years of government propaganda still found seventy per cent of Americans opposed to funding the Contras saw a twenty per cent switch in opinion after the hearings. Once the policy issue became personalised inside North, and opposition to him could be construed as the work of a repressive state, Congressional television viewing became popular and influential.


Prime Minister John Major
Photo courtesy of C-SPAN

Conversely, rules enunciated by the British Select Committee on Televising the Commons prohibit cut-away reaction shots, other than of those named in debate. Close-ups and shots of sleeping members are also proscribed. Disruptions lead to a cut-away to the Speaker. These restrictions persuaded Channel Four to abandon plans for live telecasts, although the House decided to permit wide-angle shots in 1990 in order to increase the televisuality of the occasion. How should one read instructions which insist that: "Coverage should give an unvarnished account of the proceedings of the House, free of subjective commentary and editing techniques designed to produce entertainment rather than information?" Such a perspective contrasts starkly with the response to falling public interest in watching Convention politics made by Roone Arlege, Network News President of the American Broadcasting Company: "The two political parties should sit down on their own, or maybe with the networks, to come up with something more appealing to the American people."

For the most part, parliaments want to control coverage. Guidelines on the use of file footage of proceedings issued by Australia's Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings, for example, are concerned about the unruly gazes of directors and publics. They insist on maintaining continuity, avoiding freeze frames, and receiving guarantees that material will not "be used for the purposes of satire or ridicule." After the first day of Question Time TV in Britain, a Conservative Member stated that "some of the men--I happen to know--are carrying powder-puffs in their pockets to beautify their sallow complexions." And who can forget former US House Speaker Tip O'Neill's sensational findings on TV coverage of Democratic and Republican Party Conventions: "If a delegate was picking his nose, that's what you'd see.... No wonder so many of us were skittish"? Satire can never be kept far-distant from pomposity.

-Toby Miller


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See also British Television; Hill-Thomas Hearings; Political Processes and Television; U.S. Congress and Television; U.S. Presidency and Television