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,
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
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
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
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
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.