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Televising The House of Commons: A Retrospective
James Jerome

At the time this article was published James Jerome was Associate Chief Justice of the Federal Court of Canada. He was Speaker of the House of Commons from 1974-1980. Shortly before the Commonwealth Speakers Conference held in Ottawa in April 1981 he was invited to make a short presentation on televising the House.

It is now nearly five years since a resolution of the House of Commons approved the radio and television broadcasting of its proceedings. In this article the Speaker who presided over the introduction of television discusses some of the problems involved in that decision. A future issue of the Canadian Parliamentary Review will feature an article on the technical aspects of televising debates.

Democratic government means government in view of the public. In present day society this means television, for television is the medium through which the public sees major events.

When first elected to the House in 1968 I served on the Standing Committee on Procedure and Organization. Among other things we looked at a study by a previous procedure committee on the possibility of televising proceedings of the House. Although we devoted a great deal of time to this issue the House did not act until about ten years later. When it did move, however, it moved with lightning speed.

On January 25, 1977 the House approved a resolution to televise its proceedings. This motion set up a special committee under the direction of the Speaker to implement the resolution. This was not a committee to study or report. We faced the job of actually implementing a decision of the House.

All appraisals or opinions said that it would take at least three years to sort out the technical and logistical problems. In fact, eighteen months later we turned the cameras on for the first day. We stayed roughly within the original start up capital cost of about $5 million. The initial estimate for annual operation was about 1.5 million.

There were many, including myself, who thought that we should have started by televising committees and on the basis of that experience move into the Chamber. We actually tried televising some meetings of a Joint Senate and House of Commons Committee. I remember walking down to the Railway Committee Room with the Speaker of the Senate. In an instant our worst fears were confirmed. The room was filled with ladders, wires, cables, temporary lights and microphones. There were people all over the room; it was just a circus. In our minds it represented the worst aspects of television coverage. It might look wonderful to the viewing audience, but it could totally destroy the dignity of the proceedings.

It was obvious that if we allowed two or three batteries of cameras, and two or three teams of journalists to come and go as they please, then we were in for a highly competitive set-up. We certainly did not want different networks or different teams of journalists focusing only on a particular event which might occur one day or one hour in the House. Nor did we think a pool approach would work. To preserve the dignity of the proceedings., we determined that television had to be under own management. Therefore we went for gavel to gavel coverage of every minute of the proceedings, the so-called electronic Hansard concept. We decided to turn on the camera when proceedings began, and keep it on until the encl.

This does not mean that the networks themselves may not occasionally come under criticism because they prefer to use film of one event and not another. But that is not a House of Commons problem. It is the same choice that journalists have always. enjoyed. Whether to put something on the front page or not, is a journalistic choice. We produce film of every moment of every day and the journalists take it and do with it as they see fit. I am absolutely convinced this has been responsible, in a very, large measure. for the unqualified success of the operation.

In talking about television one must realize that it can only be distributed successfully with an extensive cable distribution system such as exists in Canada. One of the first problems facing the committee charged with implementing television, was to decide how we were going to distribute the film. I, for one, had never thought of that. Our preliminary or initial distribution system was pretty primitive. We were reproducing tapes with copying machines in Ottawa and flying them around the country so that networks could physically get hold of a tape. Perhaps seven or eight hours after the event they could play some part of the proceedings which was of interest to them. But people on the west coast are not going to tolerate the fact that news happens at four o'clock in the afternoon in Ottawa, and they cannot receive it until the next day. Now, through a marriage of satellite and our cable system, we have instantaneous reproduction and coverage of events. The cable system, uniquely, can consecrate a channel which is unused and turn on the proceedings of the House and let them run all day. If you attempted to displace a regular channel, you would face all kinds of commercial problems and pressures. It simply is not economically viable.

During my time in office, network selection was almost entirely free of complaints from members about the editorial treatment of the proceedings. But one must also bear in mind that each evening on the National News there is a maximum of two minutes coverage of the proceedings of the House as part of the overall newscast. Some of it is background to a commentary and then a cut is made to a fifteen or twenty second reply to a question. When you get down to those kinds of editorial pressures, there is really not much choice as to what is the feature story of the day. On the weekend wrap-ups there is generous coverage which is usually pretty, tastefully done.

In making tapes available to individuals we were constantly on the alert for requests by one member of an opponent member's answer to a particular question or performance in the House. There could be a temptation to use it in a derogatory fashion, perhaps in a campaign. When I was Speaker I left a general instruction that should any member request a tape of somebody else, that request should be referred to me. It never happened and I think there is a very practical reason. The competition for air time is so intense that no one has the luxury of playing a tape of anyone else in their constituency.

We must cover the House in two languages and that creates some problems. We have had some funny stories about English speaking ministers who constantly answer questions in the House in English, yet there is this beautiful. translation flowing over the French channel. When they go into the French sections of the country to make a speech, they can get a very adverse reaction because the people say, "Why would they come here and insult us by speaking English when obviously they speak such beautiful French on television?"

Aside from such problems, which are part of life in the Canadian House of Commons, television has brought with it some new and difficult problems. During my tenure in the Chair, members crossed the floor on at least two occasions. Once the whole Social Credit caucus left the Chamber. They did it in a very orderly fashion. They were seated down on the right. They all came forward, following their leader. They bowed to the Chair and left in a very polite fashion. This occurred while a former minister was on his feet questioning the Prime Minister.

Our rule is that the camera stays on the person who has the floor; that is to say, the one putting a question or answering it, or the Speaker. Yet here was a very significant event. Should the camera possibly cut from the questioner or cut from the Prime Minister to this event? Should it do that for someone crossing the floor?

One day a questioner asked a minister about some difficulties in his own area and then, following the question, marched across the floor and dumped a series of petitions on the minister's desk. Does that stop the normal coverage? If it does, then, of course, one would be inviting people to do these kinds of things, these grandstand plays, to distract the cameras.

We have stuck very rigidly with the rule that the camera stays on those tight shots of persons who have the floor. It is not running around the Chamber, it is not focusing on empty seats; it is not doing an editorial job. It is using a strict journalistic approach. There are two or three occasions in every session where that does not serve the House well, but, by and large, I think it does.

Before television, politicians had to go to the studio for interviews right after the sitting. Each day they replayed, as it were, the events that had taken place during the question period at the start of the day. That replay downgraded the importance of proceedings in the House, for question period became a kind of a rehearsal for these interviews. You could float a few trial balloons. You could try this answer and that, and by the time you got to the televised interviews, you had worked all the wrinkles out of your act and had smoothed things out for public viewing. Now, of course, the focus is on the event and there is no doubt that the proceedings have been restored to the importance they deserve.

While our approach to television has been so successful in the House of Commons, it is virtually unworkable in committees. We sometimes have ten and twelve committees sitting at the same time. The personnel to run coverage from the beginning to the end of every committee session would be just too expensive. Furthermore, referring to actual coverage, the competition for time to air that film would be enormous when we are banking up to ten or twelve rolls of film from separate committees every day. The possibility that we might cover some committees and not others would be a very difficult choice and one the Chair would not want to get near. So we get into some real problems, and we have never really made much progress in going from the proceedings of the House to the committees.

Every once in a while I like to keep tabs on public reaction to televised debates. The audience for events that take place in the chamber since television was introduced, has been phenomenally higher than anyone expected. Some of us were pessimistic, some of us were optimistic, but even the most optimistic estimates were below the actual. level of viewer participation.

I checked recently with those responsible for a weekend wrap-p program in order to be sure that we are not just talking about people who watch the National News and in that way happen to catch a clip of the proceedings of the House on television. The weekend wrap-p program occurs on Saturdays and Sundays, at different hours. It is about a two-our show. When you count the people who tune in to that, it seems to me that you are accurately dealing with people who are interested in the proceedings of the House. There is nothing else to see on that program.

One audience measurement, taken during the constitutional debate was about three quarters of' a million. That is about half the size of the audience measurement for the National News. It is a phenomenally high audience rating for that kind of thing.

We have had a couple of excellent programs. One, in my opinion, was an hilariously funny satire of question period when television first came into the House. I obtained a copy of the tape and showed it to members as they were leaving for an Easter break a few years ago, and they all roared. But at the same time we were on the alert, and if a use is ever made that offends the dignity of the House or that is an affront to the House, the situation is no different than without television. A journalist or anyone else who insults or in any way demeans the dignity of the House could be subject to a question of privilege in precisely the same way now, as in the past.

Indeed when television was being introduced there was naturally some concern it would adversely effect the rights or privileges of members. This has never been demonstrated but were it to do so in the slightest way, alterations could be made because the system remains entirely under the control of the House of Commons and not under any television network.

There is no question television has led to a far higher quality of journalism in reporting the proceedings of the House of Commons. Previously the print journalists could simply report their versions of what took place. They had a free hand. Now, they do not. Now there is a standard by which they can be compared and they must live up to the standard of the live proceedings. So it sharpened them up a great deal.

Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 4 no 4

Last Updated: 2020-03-03