Margaret Thatcher and televising parliament






I once spent time as a research assistant for the MP for Greater Grimsby, Austin Mitchell MP who was campaigning for the televising of Parliament.   We tried to drum up support for an Early Day Motion supporting an experiment to bring in the cameras.  A subsequent vote was held, which failed.

The opponents of filming in the House worried that the public would be aghast at the sight of MPs’ noisy behaviour or had the opposite concern, that MPs would modify their behaviour, preening in front of the cameras.

Margaret Thatcher opposed televising parliamentary debates because she felt that the reputation of MPs would suffer.  Opponents chanted one of her words frit, frit, frit back at her.  But nevertheless, cameras were finally allowed in in November 1989, just six months before she was deposed.  Like many things that changed while she was in office, the idea of reverting back to how it had been earlier, and not televising our elected representatives sounds bonkers.  And while she might not have welcomed the change, thank goodness we can now watch her at the despatch box, (and what a shame the chance to watch her earlier appearances and those of so many others have been denied us).

But it still raises the question of whether Thatcher was right to be against televising parliament.  Perhaps the careers of Tony Blair and David Cameron have reflected their skills in the chamber and on TV, while those of Ian Duncan Smith and Robin Cook might have prospered without cameras.  Do we benefit from telegenic leaders?  Discuss…

And it’s also true that Margaret Thatcher’s command of the Commons as Prime Minister wasn’t evident when she was merely a minister.  Perhaps that’s what put her off, the thought that a camera lens would have imposed a small glass ceiling on her career before she climbed to the top.

24 years later, audiences for BBC Parliament remain small, and restrictions mean that footage is not allowed in panel shows and elsewhere.  But in the UK and throughout the world, audiences are able to see robust debate, and the British government being held up for scrutiny (and occasionally ridicule) – it’s an amazing advert for democracy, and something that only TV can provide.

And I’d bet that this is one area where Mrs Thatcher would admit that she got it wrong.


Go on, have a look. It’s really good








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