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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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
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Processes and Television; U.S.
Congress and Television; U.S.
Presidency and Television