February 14, 2012 1:48 pm

Minsky’s musings: Putting a glaze over the public’s window to the Commons

In the autumn of 1977, the first television cameras were installed in the House of Commons, effectively tearing down the walls that kept a majority of the public from peeking in on the work of their elected members.

Now, at least one Conservative member is trying obscure that vantage point.

Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski suggested on Tuesday that the House of Commons broadcasters avoid using wide shots on days when attendance in the House is meagre, in an effort to keep viewers in the dark on how many MPs are actually present.

“It concerns a lot of members, and it frankly doesn’t look good for Parliament,” he told the Procedure and House Affairs committee, which is reviewing the broadcasting guidelines.

Some of the guidelines have changed since the day in October when cameras first started filming the House. For example, cameras can no longer show a member or minister reacting to a statement.

On October 17, 1977, during the first-ever broadcast of question period – the marquee event in the Commons – Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau told the House the issue at hand “calls for more than just bland statements by the Leader of the Opposition.”

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In turn, Joe Clark rose from his seat, began his next question by saying, “Not wishing to compete with the prime minister for blandness,” and was quickly drowned out by a chamber of laughing MPs. Swiftly, the camera switched to a shot of Trudeau, who could be seen shifting his weight in his seat and fighting the muscles around his mouth that were begging to justify Clark’s jab with a smile.

Today, when the House erupts in laughter, jeers or cries of “shame!” the camera either stays on the member who has the floor or cuts to a wide shot showing both sides of the floor with the Speaker in the distance.

Losing cutaways may make for less exciting television, but the context of a member’s message is preserved, and the public still sees an honest picture of the work going on in the Chamber.

Another thing that has changed since the first broadcast in 1977 is the addition of 44 seats to the chamber. That means there are 44 more members the public can watch and scrutinize, and 44 more seats the public can catch unoccupied.

On Fridays, as has long been the case, MPs flee Ottawa and return to their constituencies. Attendance at question period on those days is sparse at best.

Members who do attend often abandon their regular assigned seats and huddle around each other near the front benches.

A close shot on a speaker during a day of meagre attendance might fool a viewer into thinking the MPs are stacked in the Commons. But a wide shot will shatter that notion.

So, Lukiwski suggested, perhaps House broadcasting would consider scrapping the wide shot, at least on Fridays.

Other members of the committee voiced concerns about angles that show members daydreaming, doodling or, worse, falling asleep.

“You are on camera,” the Commons’ chief information officer Louis Bard responded, noting that newly-elected members receive training specific to cameras in the Commons and committee rooms. When the camera is focused on a member speaking and another is in the frame sleeping, “there is not much I can do.”

Taking suggestions and questions from members of the committee in stride, House clerk Audrey O’Brien offered one of her own: stop reading answers, statements and questions during proceedings.

That, she said, would automatically make better television and help engage viewers.

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