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Televising of Parliament and the trial televising of Question Time in the Senate

BRUCE WEBSTER: Televising of Parliament was much in the air this week. Elder Statesman, E G Whitlam, gave his views at the National Press Club on Wednesday.

GOUGH WHITLAM: In the new age, the great casualty as a foremost forum, has been Parliament itself. This I believe, has occurred not directly because of television, but because of our response to it, the response of the parliamentarians, and the response of the rest of the media. Simply, speeches and debates are no longer seriously reported. The second half of the old equation, comment is free, facts are sacred, has disappeared. Television as we currently use it, for all its power, is not an effective instrument for arguing or developing policies. Many of its manifestations - the kerbside interview, the thirty second grab and so on, are quite counterproductive at that level. The answer to the problem is obvious. Television exists, Parliament exists, at vast expense to the taxpayer, the facilities exist. The three should be brought together. Parliament should be televised. In the television age, that is the best way to restore Parliament to its place as the principal forum for political debate in our democracy.

BRUCE WEBSTER: Former Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. Leo McLeay feels that MPs are touchy about televising of the House of Representatives because of fears of media insensitivity.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Broadcasting, Mr Speaker, do you personally want to see proceedings of the House of Representatives televised?

LEO MCLEAY: Well I think that there are dangers in televising the proceedings and that dangers are as much with some members as they are with some elements of the press. If we get some very clear understandings that the press will not use stunts to trivialise the proceedings and that we will see not just snips of someone glaring at someone, but the content of what is said, then I think we can overcome some of the problems that people have with broadcasting. I think that people who listen to the radio broadcasts get some of the flavour. The problem with televising news is that television is such a powerful medium, that if the people who are doing the editing just edit to show what they want to show, rather than what the whole sequence is, then it can become a very powerful medium that can give very, very wrong images and ideas to people about what is going on. You also get a lot of people in Australia say, `Oh isn't the House of Representatives a rowdy place' and then you get pompous journalists who have never been to Britain saying that this would never happen in the House of Commons. But the Speaker there is up and down like he's sitting on a spring because it's so rowdy and you can often not hear the Speaker or the people answering questions because either the Opposition or the Government are screaming at each other. The House of Representatives is rather sedate compared to the House of Commons. But you'd have to be careful with television that you didn't have the six o'clock news saying the House of Representatives was in uproar today and you hear a little bit of noise. What people have to remember is that this isn't a sedate debating society. The people who are there at Question Time are trying to set the agenda for who should run our country and there ought to be passion in that and there ought to be heat and sometimes out of that heat and passion ought to come some light. I think that if we just thought that people would sit there and applaud politely and say, well done old chap, that was a excellent point, three to you, four to me. Like that's not how I want my country run. I want the people who are involved in it to feel about it and Question Time is the time when those feelings come out. The six o'clock news jockeys shouldn't be looking for shock horror all the time. If they actually looked to portray what was happening rather than what they want it to portray then we'd probably have a more sensible approach to the idea of whether you broadcast the place or not.

BRUCE WEBSTER: Senators may well share such misgivings, but they've decided to at least experiment with televising of their proceedings.

HARRY HALL: Commencing on Wednesday the 22, Australians will see for the first time the proceedings as they occur in, the Senate Chamber. It's been a subject of some concern for a long time within the media and also in some parliamentary circles, to the fact that television has been the only media that hasn't had access to the proceedings as they occur and as of the 22nd, we will see in the Senate Chamber, the events and proceedings as they occur.

JENNY HUTCHISON: So how many minutes or hours will someone see next Wednesday?

HARRY HALL: Starting next Wednesday they'll see sixty minutes, to use a term, one hour between 2.00 p.m. and 3.00 p.m. when the Senate is sitting in the Chamber, but in addition to the live telecast which will occur on ABC television. The media is allowed to excerpt the rest of the proceedings via the adjournment debate and by that it means that you will get to see, for the first time, synchronous sound and vision on the television, in the news and current affairs shows, that evening, of events that occurred in the Chamber without it being in the situation we have at present where file footage unrelated to the audio that has been recorded during the day. It's very much a trial period, and as I say, we are working very closely under the direction of the President of the Senate as to how that occurs.

JENNY HUTCHISON: You were formerly with the ABC and you're now manager of the Sound and Vision Office. What is exactly the role of the ABC in this new procedure which begins next week?

HARRY HALL: The ABC are the carriers of the signal of the parliamentary proceedings. The ABC has been very keen to have televised proceedings for some time and have embarked on a long campaign and this is the combination of that. But in essence it's the Parliament through the Sound and Vision Office, which I manage, that is producing the coverage for the Parliament under the guidance of the Senate, in this particular case. We are providing that signal to the ABC who then transmit it to air. The ABC have provided some support. We are using some ABC staff who are working with us at this stage, but it is a parliamentary production totally, and the ABC are just the carriers of it.

JENNY HUTCHISONl: How are you able to find the space on ABC television for the Parliamentary televising?

HARRY HALL: It will be interesting to see how negotiations go when the House of Representatives decide that they want to be part of broadcasting as well, as to exactly what the broadcasting pattern is going to be. Both the Parliament and the ABC have got some thinking to do as to how they are going to approach that and those discussions are underway as to the impact it's going to have on both air time and the pattern of broadcasting from the Parliament.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Seems to me that there are two specific questions. One is what would you have been showing next Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday at 2.00 p.m. if you weren't showing Parliament.

HARRY HALL: Well the ABC has a charter to show a number of activities. Previous to this its been mostly educational product that has gone out during the 2.00 p.m. to 3.00 p.m. time slot. But, as always, it's an evolution of things and the ABC are changing and adapting to their audience and the viewers and to network demands, on a continuous basis and again, the decision was made to go live at the time because that's when its occurring, that's when it is relevant. At another time, it may be deemed appropriate to have delayed telecasts and that indeed when both Chambers are televising, that may indeed be what happens to one of the Chambers. But to maintain the spontaneity of the televising and to represent the Parliament as it is, warts and all, live 2.00 p.m.

JENNY HUTCHISON: I think, that at least my second point I was going to say, which is a fear on the part of some people, that the Parliament might be asked to change its scheduling, to change its order of proceeding or way of doing things just to fit in with the broadcaster. Do you see that ever happening?

HARRY HALL: No I don't. The Parliament is the prime body in Australia, and the decision is up to the parliamentarians and they will make that judgment themselves. There has been no attempt by ourselves or the ABC to change any of the proceedings so far. What will happen I think, as a result of televising, that the parliamentarians will be able to look at the product and see how it's being perceived by the audience and will look at the changes that best suit their needs as they require it.