Television: Rules of Coverage - Administration Committee Contents

Television: rules of coverage

Remit and inquiry

1. The Committee is required by its Standing Order to consider the services provided for and by the House. It was formed in 2005 by bringing together five previous Committees, one of which was the Broadcasting Committee. It has a standing instruction from the Commission to advise it on 'the broadcasting of proceedings of the House and its Committees'.

2. This inquiry was prompted by requests from broadcasters including the BBC and ITV for a review of the rules of coverage. We set a simple term of reference: to consider the current rules of coverage for the Chamber, Westminster Hall and Committees, and whether any change was required. We visited the parliamentary television control room and took oral evidence from the Director of Parliamentary Broadcasting, John Angeli, and from representatives of the BBC, ITV and Sky. We received written submissions from broadcasters and members of the public, and we viewed test pictures demonstrating new camera angles within the Chamber. The Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly supplied information on the rules of coverage for the broadcasting of their proceedings, as did the Australian and Canadian Parliaments and the Greater London Assembly.

3. Our role in this matter is advisory: the recommendations we make are for the House of Commons Commission to consider. If it approves the changes we suggest in the rules of coverage, it may be necessary for a motion to be put to the House proposing their implementation.

History of television broadcasting in the Commons

4. Television broadcasting of the House of Commons began on 21 November 1989. The House had previously been suspicious of it: the Commons rejected proposals to broadcast sittings on television in 1966, 1971, 1975 and 1985. Radio broadcasts of proceedings were allowed only from April 1978. The first broadcasts were billed as an experiment. It was judged a success and permanent arrangements were made for television broadcasting from 1990.

5. Detailed rules of coverage were drawn up during the original experiment to maintain parliamentary control of what pictures could be shown. In essence, the central principle is that the camera remain on the person speaking, except for cutaways to other Members mentioned in speeches, or long shots of the Chamber during the hiatus between speeches or during divisions or procedural events, such as presentation of Bills. The full rules, as amended in 2006, are set out in annex 1. Our proposals for changes to those rules are set out in annex 2 and are discussed in detail below.

How the current system works

6. Eight remotely controlled cameras provide pictures from the Chamber, and the shots to be transmitted are selected by a director in the control room at 7 Millbank according to the rules of coverage. The directors, and the other staff who operate the system, are employed by Bow Tie Television, which Parliament has contracted to provide the pictures. The contract is re-let every five years. Bow Tie is under the instruction of a parliamentary official, the Director of Parliamentary Broadcasting. The choice of shot to be broadcast therefore lies not with the broadcasters but with the House itself. The BBC, ITV and others use the shot provided to them. Bow Tie also operates five cameras in the House of Lords, four in the second Commons Chamber, Westminster Hall, and others, including digital cameras for webcast, in Committee Rooms in the Palace of Westminster and in Portcullis House.

7. BBC Parliament, a digital channel, carries coverage from the House of Commons live, time-shifted coverage of the House of Lords, and unedited coverage of about 10 committees a week. On rare occasions, live coverage of the Lords may supersede coverage of the Commons—for example, a Friday morning debate on Defence in the Lords has been given higher priority than private Members' Bills in the Commons. Live webcasting of proceedings in the two Houses and in some select committees began in January 2002.[1]

Purpose of the rules

8. The rules of coverage were devised to ensure that the House retained control over how it was portrayed on television. They are essentially guidelines for the camera operators and the television director setting out which shots may and may not be used, and what may and may not be shown. They provide guidelines for picture direction and instructions on how specific events, such as disorder, are to be treated.

9. The requirement to focus principally on the Member who has the floor has two broad justifications: a feed covering the totality of a Member's speech provides a record for the broadcast archive, and news organisations which wish to use a speech would be unhappy if the clip they wanted was not available because the camera had been pointed elsewhere to add variety to the pictures. The needs of broadcasters and the House differ here: for us, the integrity of the broadcast record is more important than the diversity of the image broadcast. The maintenance of a proper record of proceedings is a primary objective of parliamentary broadcasting. The central principle guiding parliamentary broadcast must remain that the Member speaking is wholly or largely the focus of any broadcast.

Positioning of cameras

10. The eight cameras are hung from the galleries above the Chamber and controlled remotely from Millbank. The director at Millbank therefore has a choice at any moment of eight shots, covering both sides of the Chamber and the central table and Speaker's chair, and will select the shot that best fits the rules. The height of the cameras can mean, however, that while those seated on the higher benches are shot from a straight-on angle, those seated nearer the Floor of the Chamber are largely shot from above. This includes Ministers and their shadows at the Despatch Box, including the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition during Prime Minister's Question Time.

11. Peter Knowles, the controller of BBC Parliament, told us these angles are "incredibly unflattering", and that "Front Benchers are seen mainly from the top of their foreheads and top of their heads".[2] ITV said that the existing shot "mitigates against being able to convey the intimacy of the Chamber, and in particular disadvantages those speaking from the front bench".[3] Esme Wren, a Sky Executive Producer, concurred in relation to Prime Minister's Questions or front-bench statements: "It is quite hard to be drawn in for some time when you are looking down on somebody. It is nice to see a good eye-to-eye exchange between the two contenders".[4]

12. While it is an essential principle of the Chamber that all Members are equal, there is little point in pretending that from a broadcast point of view some are not more equal than others. News programmes using short clips from the Chamber are more likely to use shots of Ministers and shadow Ministers than of anyone else and the current shot, although familiar to the public, is not wholly satisfactory. Indeed, Mr Mares told us that ITV will sometimes film a separate interview with a Minister rather than use the Chamber footage for this reason.[5]

13. The Director of Parliamentary Broadcasting, John Angeli, conducted a short experiment during the Christmas Recess of 2011-12 by placing a camera on the table of the House to see whether a more realistic and natural shot could be obtained. He told us that the request for an eye-level shot of the front benches was entirely reasonable, but not a priority within the House's budget.[6] A fuller experiment with a table-mounted camera would cost £2,000 or £3,000.[7] The camera in question would be small, roughly tennis-ball sized, and mounted on a thin stand. It would, however, be able to swivel and would be noticeable and potentially distracting for the person speaking and those nearby, including Mr Speaker, other front benchers and Whips.

14. This limited experiment demonstrates that considerably more natural shots can be obtained of front-bench speakers, although there would always be occasions when Ministers' heads were down as they read statements, or when backs were turned to a table-mounted camera in front of Mr Speaker. The principal difficulty lies in placement: the experiment suggests that cameras mounted on or near the Despatch Boxes would be too close to Ministers and their shadows. The more obvious placement in front of the Clerks on the table may block their view of the Chamber, or that of the Chairman of Ways and Means when the House is in Committee.

15. So long as the minor costs concerned were borne by the broadcasters themselves and no charge arising on the public purse, we believe that it would, however, be valuable to conduct a fuller trial of the table-mounted camera, to gain a sense of how the House would be portrayed in action. In particular, we believe that running such an experiment during the next sitting of the UK Youth Parliament in the Chamber could provide valuable real-time evidence of how the camera would work in practice and in a full House.

16. We recommend that a small-scale trial using a camera mounted on the Table of the House be conducted on a non-sitting day, involving a mock debate among volunteers from the House's staff or during the next sitting of the UK Youth Parliament, or both. There should be no cost to the public purse of such a trial, beyond staff time; it should be conducted only if the broadcasters are willing to fund the technical costs.

17. Pictures obtained from such trials should not be broadcast, but should be used to consult political parties, the Government and the Opposition on whether such a camera would be a useful and desirable addition to what is already available.

18. If a trial proved successful and the House approved introduction of a table-mounted camera, the initial capital costs of the necessary infrastructure should also be borne by the broadcasters rather than the public purse. Future replacement and revenue costs could fall within the House's own broadcasting budget.

Types of shot

19. Even without the innovation of new camera angles, there are options for changing the range of shots presently provided to the broadcasters or for interpreting the existing rules differently. Since its creation, the Scottish Parliament has sought to offer a 'gallery surrogate' model of TV coverage of its proceedings: in other words, to try to replicate to some degree what someone sitting in the public gallery can see. Simon Mares of ITV suggested that the 'staid' existing rules meant that broadcasters could not offer viewers the full picture of what was happening in the Chamber all the time.[8] Peter Knowles of the BBC, sitting at the witness table in front of us in Committee Room 16, explained: "If you think about this room and how we are arrayed, it is very formal and yet the way any one of us looks at another is not fixed. I am not fixed on your face the whole time. I am looking at other people around. The way the human eye and brain work is to take in the wider scene and other people's reactions all the time".[9] Mr Knowles felt that the geography of the Chamber could be made clearer to TV viewers than the current restricted camera placements and selection of shots allows, and that the type and variety of shots in a broadcast matters: "People are much more likely to watch for longer if there is variety in the shots".[10]

20. We are not convinced that the variety of pictures broadcast is particularly likely to prompt more people to watch broadcasts of our proceedings, or to do so for a longer time. Viewership has risen significantly during the past two years, but this is clearly driven by significant news events such as the Culture, Media and Sport Committee hearings involving Rupert and James Murdoch and the wider availability of broadcast over new platforms (see paragraph 38 below). Those who watch parliament on television are more likely to do so because of content than because of presentation.

21. To some extent, that greater variety of shots can be provided within the existing rules. John Angeli told us: "under the rules of coverage, we are allowed to show a head-and-shoulders shot, but actually what we show much of the time is a hips-waist-chest-shoulders and head shot. It is quite wide. I think that may partly be a throwback to when television was in 4:3 […] There is some scope for offering a slightly tighter shot without crossing the line at all".[11]

22. The rules of coverage justify tighter shots of Members making speeches than is standard practice at present, and we support the Director of Parliamentary Broadcasting in encouraging our TV directors to provide head and shoulders shots rather than the waist-upwards shots currently preferred.

23. It has been suggested that the rules might be further relaxed to allow for more cutaway shots during a Member's speech. Esme Wren of Sky suggested that allowing more reaction shots would give viewers a greater impression of the atmosphere in the Chamber during a debate.[12] Simon Mares also argued against the rule prohibiting close-up shots of Members speaking or reacting: "it strikes me that if you have a medium close-up, a wider shot and a close-up, then you have a wider variety of shots".[13] We are not convinced that more cutaway shots should be provided: the purpose of the broadcasts is to provide coverage of speeches, not varied pictures.

Public gallery

24. ITV and the BBC have asked for limited relaxation of restrictions on filming the public gallery. At present, no shots of the public gallery are allowed, and there has been consistent concern that filming of the galleries might encourage protests or disruptions. The London Assembly's rules of coverage allow shots of audience members referred to during discussions there.[14] The physical layout of the Scottish Parliament means that the public gallery there is frequently in shot but early concern expressed by some MSPs that this would encourage protest or misbehaviour in the galleries has not proved justified over the past decade.[15]

25. The BBC and ITV asked us to consider allowing cutaway shots to the gallery to film individuals mentioned in debate in the Chamber, and Peter Knowles of the BBC offered recent examples of doorkeepers and other officials of the House who have sat in the galleries but not been shown on television as they were being praised or thanked for their service to the House.[16] Mr William Turrell, a member of the public, also favoured occasional and carefully controlled shots of the public gallery, possibly of individuals on a list approved by Mr Speaker: "I think this approach would enhance parliamentary coverage, as a subtle but powerful reminder that it is the people's parliament which anyone can attend in person, also showing the chamber in a refreshingly different, more positive light than that normally afforded by the 'raucous' atmosphere of PMQs and prevalent (though highly misleading) shots of half-empty benches during many debates".[17]

26. John Angeli noted that any decision to allow filming in the public gallery would require permission to be granted in advance from Mr Speaker and probably need permission, too, from whoever it was who would be filmed. Control over any decision to shoot in the gallery would remain with the House in the TV control room at Millbank, not with the broadcast organisations.[18] There is no reason, though, why a broadcast organisation producing a news piece which featured an individual could not use a still picture of the person in question.

27. Our predecessors in 2003 did not see any case for relaxing restrictions on showing the public galleries, and we, too, remain unconvinced that there is real value to the coverage of parliamentary proceedings in enabling this, even if it would provide a greater variety of pictures.[19] As noted, a primary purpose of broadcasting is to provide an accurate record of proceedings, and it is worth recalling that neither interruptions from nor demonstrations in the galleries are proceedings of Parliament, no matter how interesting they would undoubtedly be to the media. We see no reason to relax restrictions on filming in the public galleries of the House. Parliamentary proceedings occur in the Chamber, Westminster Hall or Committee Rooms, not the galleries.

Division lobbies

28. ITV argues that allowing divisions of the House to be filmed would provide both some public education about how votes in the House actually work and more interesting pictures for broadcast during the 'dead' 15 minutes or so when a vote occurs in the House. At present during divisions, the sound feed is cut off and the camera remains fixed on a single long shot of the Chamber. ITV suggest that sound and a wider variety of camera shots, including shots of Members entering and leaving the division lobbies, would help them convey the "drama and tension surrounding big votes".[20] Simon Mares said: "You do not see the Division. It is a bit like a Shakespearean play; it is all taking place off stage. We are all talking about something but we cannot see it".[21]

29. Mr William Turrell also suggests that filming at least one division for educational purposes could help teach the public more about what happens during a vote in the Commons, making the perfectly fair point that the division process may be something of a mystery to anyone who has not themselves visited the Palace of Westminster and taken the tour through the lobbies.[22] Mr Mares, too, suggested that filming divisions would help explain how one piece of Parliament's procedure works.[23]

30. Esme Wren of Sky suggested that a fixed, locked camera in each division lobby, possibly without sound, could provide pictures that correspondents could use to explain to viewers what was happening during a vote in the House: "There is no move; there is no panning round; there is no particular recording of a conversation. It is a locked-off shot that just enables us to tell the story in better detail".[24]

31. Our predecessors in 2003 argued that the introduction of additional shots during divisions would require the television director to make editorial decisions about who was shown.[25] This remains a strong point: from our perspective the primary purposes of broadcasting from the Commons are the provision of open public access to parliamentary proceedings and a record of them. There is, from that perspective, nothing to be gained for the record of proceedings from filming divisions of the House. The TV director at Millbank would be required to focus on one or other lobby at any given time, and that would mean that some Members were filmed voting while others were not. Filming in the lobbies would also remove the prospect, popular with Back-Bench Members in particular, of snatching a comparatively private few minutes' chat with a Minister or shadow during a division. These remain powerful arguments against doing so, certainly on a routine basis.

32. We see no reason to enable routine filming within the division lobbies during divisions of the House. To do so would add nothing to the record of proceedings provided by parliamentary broadcasting.

33. We do, however, see the merit in the idea that filming a division in progress might have some educational and explanatory value, and would support in principle the idea of filming a mocked-up division should the Parliament's Education Service seek to do so.

Paying for television coverage of Parliament

34. Until July 2011, the system was overseen by PARBUL—the Parliamentary Broadcast Unit Ltd, a company created during the initial experiment. The company was chaired by the Chairman of Ways and Means (until 2010, this was our own Chair, who continued in the role as the company was wound down during 2011).[26] Its board included members of both Houses, officials of both Houses and representatives of the major broadcast organisations, which also shared with the two Houses the cost of providing the broadcast pictures. This split-funding arrangement arose in 1989 because of the long-standing reluctance of Parliament to allow TV broadcasting. Peter Knowles of the BBC also told us that the then Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher, an opponent of televising Parliament, had insisted that the broadcasters should pay.[27]

35. The broadcasters funded the cameras and control rooms for Chamber coverage and staffing costs for operators. Parliament funded the infrastructure costs, the provision of remote-control camera operation for Committee coverage, the sound systems and operators in the Chamber and most Committees, and the Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU). All broadcasters who had access to the television feed from Westminster paid a fee.

36. These arrangements were unusual in that parliamentary broadcasting in almost all other countries, and in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies, was wholly funded by the parliament itself. Only two other countries had similar arrangements: India and Australia.[28] The broadcasters let it be known during the original experiment that they were reluctant to contribute. The House argued that it was "not unreasonable to expect the broadcasters to make some contribution towards the cost of providing a service from which they themselves also derive benefits".[29]

37. In 2009, the terrestrial channel, Five, announced that it would no longer participate or provide funding.[30] The other broadcasters followed suit. Our predecessor Committee and the Finance and Services Committee in the previous Parliament accepted in January 2010 that the House itself should fully fund provision of the feed.[31] Since August 2011, the two Houses have borne the total cost of providing the infrastructure and the pictures. The Commons share of that cost is about £600,000 a year; the Lords pays about £400,000.[32] The TV control facilities at Millbank were due for refurbishment more than a year ago, but will not now be refurbished, at a cost of between £3 million and £4 million before 2013-14.[33]

38. There are advantages to the House from the ending of the PARBUL arrangement. The content now belongs entirely to the House, which may give it to any user who wants a licence. Since one of the objectives of parliamentary broadcasting is wider public access to parliamentary proceedings, this has clear advantages. The number of licences sought and provided has risen substantially since August 2011, and, for example, Liverpool Football Club was able to broadcast the House debate on the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 in a way that would not previously have been possible. Under the new arrangements UK and foreign media organisations are able to obtain a licence from Parliament which grants them access to a televised feed from the Commons and Lords Chambers and Westminster Hall. The number of licences rose from 25 to more than 100 in the period from August 2011 until February 2012. These included licences granted to Al Jazeera, Agence France Presse, The Hansard Society, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Spectator, The Independent, The Times and Daily Mail. Parliament continues to charge for televised coverage of committees, based on requests from media organisations.[34]

39. In addition, web views of Commons Chamber coverage rose from 287,000 in 2010 to 659,000 in 2011, and Committee views from 195,000 in 2010 to 604,000 in 2011. To some degree, this is due to events—the select committee hearing with Rupert and James Murdoch, for example—but the ability to provide the feed more widely improves public access. Mr Angeli told us that his priorities for the coming year include ensuring that more coverage of all select committees is available and that local and regional media in particular have greater opportunities to access content for use online.[35]

Recommendations for changes to the rules

40. The rules were framed from the start in a restrictive way on the basis that it would be easier to relax them than to introduce restrictions once broadcasting had become a part of the parliamentary landscape. The Select Committee that drafted them in 1989 made it clear that "these were rules for the start of the experiment and that we were ready to consider any reasonable approaches seeking modification".[36] Control of the shots broadcast remains with the House: even if a more relaxed approach were taken to what might be shot, the choice of individual shots to be broadcast remains with the House's contracted television director in the Millbank control room, under responsibility of the Director of Broadcasting. Interpretation of the rules also remains within the House's control.

41. We propose the following amendments to the rules of coverage. Annex 2 to this Report sets out the rules as they would stand if all these changes were adopted.

42. Section 1 of the rules contains a mission statement for the Director of Parliamentary Broadcasting and the individual TV directors under his guidance. We seek to amend the first paragraph to give the full, current title of the Director of Parliamentary Broadcasting (instead of Director of Broadcasting, as at present), and we seek to shorten the second paragraph, removing a reference to the "dignity of the House" while still making the point that the director on duty should seek to maintain the integrity of the House's proceedings. Our new version of paragraph 2 would read: "The director should have regard to the integrity of the House and its function as a working body".

43. Section 2 of the rules sets out guidelines on picture direction, and paragraph (a) lists four sets of restrictions, all of which, with some slight updating and amending of language, should remain in place.

44. ITV argues in favour of simplification of Section 2(b), which lists particular types of shot that may or may not be shown: Simon Mares told us that the House gives its Director of Broadcasting "good, strong guidance" in the broad mission statement heading the rules of coverage in section 1, but then lists prescriptive rules and restrictions. In particular, ITV suggests scrapping the following rules: 2(b) (i), (iii), (vi) and (vii). In all cases, these rules set down specific guidance for the director in the control room; arguably, the principles set out in those specific rules are already embedded in the statement contained in sub-paragraph (ii), that "the camera should normally remain on the Member speaking". This comes down simply to a question of whether it is necessary to set out prescriptive instructions or trust to the directors employed by the House itself to maintain their spirit. In line with the original expectation in 1989 that the rules might be relaxed once broadcasting had become the norm, we believe the time has come to leave such matters largely to the judgment of the director on duty in the control room.

45. Section 2 (c) sets out the use of camera techniques including split screens, panning shots and zoom shots. ITV suggests that it is unnecessary, and we see some merit in that argument. Split screen shots remain needless and should continue to be forbidden, but the existing rules on panning shots and zoom shots seem to us redundant. The former should not 'normally' be used and the latter is 'occasionally' permitted; in both cases, therefore, the use of such shots is already a matter of judgment for the director in the control room, and removing the rules from the list makes no practical change.

46. Section 3 deals with the treatment of disorder, on the principle that interruptions and demonstrations should not be filmed and that the camera should cut to a shot of the Chair if disorder occurs on the Floor of the House. We see no justification for altering those rules.

47. Sections 4, 5 and 6 cover Westminster Hall, Select Committees and General Committees. Broadly, the same rules apply as in the Chamber, and the deletions we propose by uniting those rules into a single section merely remove sentences repeating rules already made in sections 1, 2 and 3. No practical alteration would result from simplifying the language in this way.

48. Our proposals would make small, practical changes to the way in which Parliament is broadcast on television but which could, we believe, make coverage of the work done by the House and its committees a little more relaxed, a little more modern in look and a little more appealing to the average viewer while retaining the central and essential principle that the broadcasts accurately portray our proceedings fully and transparently for public information and for the record.

49. We recommend that the House be invited to approve the amended rules of coverage for television broadcast set out in annex 2 to this Report.

1   Robert Rogers and Rhodri Walters, How Parliament Works, 6th edn, 2006, p. 180 Back

2   Q 1 Back

3   Ev 12 Back

4   Q 1 Back

5   Q 15 Back

6   Q 37 Back

7   Q 46 Back

8   Q 1 Back

9   Q 11 Back

10   Q 9 Back

11   Q 36 Back

12   Q 1 Back

13   Q 31 Back

14   Ev 25 Back

15   Ev 19-21 Back

16   Q 1 Back

17   Ev 17 Back

18   Q 53 Back

19   Broadcasting Committee, The Rules of coverage, First Report of Session 2002-03, HC 786, para 20 Back

20   Ev 12 Back

21   Q 20 Back

22   Ev 18 Back

23   Q 22 Back

24   Q 22 Back

25   Broadcasting Committee, The Rules of coverage, First Report of Session 2002-03, HC 786, para 13 Back

26   Erskine May, 24th edition, pp 140-41 Back

27   Q 25 Back

28   Letter from Peter Knowles to the Chairman of PARBUL, 28 September 2009 Back

29   Broadcasting Committee, The arrangements for the permanent televising of the proceedings of the House, First Report of Session 1990-91, HC 11, para 26 Back

30   Qq 25 and 28 Back

31   Although the House fully funds broadcast of proceedings, it is worth recalling that the broadcasters have their own costs of transmission: Peter Knowles of the BBC told us, at Q24, that broadcasting BBC Parliament on freeview costs the corporation between £5 million and £8 million annually Back

32   Information provided to the Committee by the Director of Broadcasting Back

33   Qq 44 and 46 Back

34   Ev 15 Back

35   Q 40 Back

36   Select Committee on televising of proceedings of the House, Review of the experiment in televising the proceedings of the House, First Report of Session 1989-90, HC 265-i, para 80 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 13 June 2012