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A New Series on TV This Fall--Britain's Parliament

February 11, 1988|TYLER MARSHALL | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Television? In the Mother of Parliaments?

The House of Commons has voted to allow TV cameras to film its proceedings, for a six-month trial, and it has left an unsettled feeling in a country that is more comfortable preserving its traditions than changing them.

Some said Winston Churchill must have turned over in his grave.

It was Churchill who insisted that the cramped intimacy of the Commons, which is unusually small for a national legislature, be preserved when it was rebuilt after being bombed in World War II. To alter it, he said, would change the chemistry of what the British call the oldest debating chamber in the Western world.

During six hours of lively debate Monday in the Commons, many of Churchill's spiritual descendants seemed to agree. They argued that letting television cameras in would change British politics forever.

After all, former Conservative Party Chairman Norman Tebbit said, if television can reduce a cricket match from three days to one, there is no telling what it might do to Parliament.

"Tonight either television or Parliament will win the vote," he said. "They cannot both win."

But Tebbit and the other traditionalists, who in the past two decades had defeated nine attempts to let the cameras in, lost the debate and the vote, 318 to 264, to a younger generation. The great majority of new members who came into the House after last June's election voted in favor of television.

The details of how to implement the decision will be left to a Commons committee, and the first television coverage of debate is expected this fall.

Approval of the measure leaves New Zealand and the Irish Repub lic as the only Western-style democracies that do not allow some TV coverage of their proceedings.

The English Parliament, in its early years, debated in secret, but that ended 400 years ago. Newspaper reporters were admitted to the Commons in 1803, and live radio broadcasts began 10 years ago.

House of Lords debates, notoriously boring, have been televised in part for the last three years but have attracted little interest. Last week, three women advocates of gay rights protested by descending on ropes from the visitors' gallery to the main floor, but they did not appear on television.

Because of the size of the House of Commons, the cameras used there will be among the smallest available. They will be remotely controlled to reduce their impact.

Many Britons hailed Monday's vote as a victory for democracy. Others saw it as a regrettable if inevitable change. Many feared that it will inevitably distort the proceedings.

Joseph Ashton, a Labor Party member, predicted that the Commons will get caught up in the ratings battle and that this will lead to stunts and gimmicks.

"The essence of television," he said, "is this: It is about entertainment, not government."

A commentator for the conservative Daily Telegraph said Tuesday that lesser-known members, the so-called back-benchers, voted for the measure out of vanity and political expediency.

"Poor, ignored, unknown . . . these blank faces have voted for TV for the same reasons that young girls flee to Hollywood," he said. "Love, fame and adoration is what they lack."

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose comments in the House are carried by radio but more often than not are drowned out by derisive, unruly shouting, expressed concern that TV cameras might encourage more unseemly behavior and do some damage to the reputation of Parliament.

The Commons has never been known for its reserve. Two thick red lines in front of the government and opposition benches are actually restraining lines, put there in the 1600s to prevent members from physically attacking each other.

But a decade ago the lines failed to stop Bernadette Devlin, a member from Northern Ireland, from attacking Home Secretary Reginald Maudling, pulling his hair and slapping his face in a burst of uncontrolled anger.

Strict rules are aimed at preventing name-calling. The words cad , rat , and cheeky young pup are only a few on a long list that can result in expulsion.

But increasingly the rules are ignored, veteran members complain, and they wonder just how the British public will react to watching their collective behavior on TV.

Frank Dobson, a Labor member, commented wryly, "I doubt whether, in respect of our behavior, we have a reputation left to damage."

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