Select Committee on Broadcasting First Report


(a) PARBUL[11]

17. Parliamentary coverage is presently organised through the Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit Ltd ("PARBUL"). PARBUL is owned by the major broadcasters. Its board consists of 19 directors—nine representing the broadcaster shareholders and nine in addition to the Chairman (the Chairman of Ways and Means) representing the two Houses of Parliament.

18. The broadcasters (through the mechanism of PARBUL) fund the cameras and control rooms for Chamber coverage and staffing costs for operators. Parliament funds the infrastructure costs, the provision of remote-control camera operation for Committee coverage (which since November 1999 includes Sittings of the House in Westminster Hall), the sound systems and operators in the Chambers and most Committees, and the Parliamentary Recording Unit.[12]

19. The Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit Limited is the company which provides to broadcasters the television pictures of the proceedings of the House of Commons, the House of Lords and of Committees of each House. It does this by employing CCT Productions Limited, an independent facilities company, to operate the cameras located in the Palace of Westminster and by making available to broadcasters as they request the resulting pictures (with a sound feed attached).[13] The company holds copyright licences from the Speaker (for the House of Commons) and the Clerk of the Parliaments (for the House of Lords) which allow it to do this. All those concerned in this process are obliged to operate within the rules of coverage set by the relevant authorities in each House.

20. All broadcasters who have access to the television feed from Westminster pay a fee. Those broadcasters who are also shareholders in the company receive the feed in return for funding the company as described in paragraph 26 below; other users of the feed pay a fee freely negotiated with PARBUL.

21. PARBUL is owned by the major broadcasting companies. The company has eight issued shares as follows:—

No. of shares
British Broadcasting Corporation
(BBC1, BBC2, BBC News 24 and BBC Parliament)
Independent Television Association Ltd
(Channel 3)
Channel 4 Television Corporation
British Sky Broadcasting Limited
Channel 5 Broadcasting Limited

22. The board of PARBUL consists of up to 19 directors who are currently as follows:—

the Chairman of Ways and Means
-Rt Hon Sir Alan Haselhurst MP
Commons Directors
appointed by the Speaker
-Rt Hon Margaret Beckett MP
  - Mr Eric Clarke MP
  - Mr Roger Gale MP
  - Mr Andrew Stunell MP
Lords Directors     
appointed by the House of Lords -Lord Boston of Faversham QC
  - Lord Thomson of Monifieth KT
  - Lord Burnham
  - Vacant
Supervisor of Parliamentary Broadcasting -Ms Barbara Long
Shareholder Directors     
British Broadcasting Corporation -Ms Anne Sloman
  - Mr Peter Phillips
  - Mr Neil Dormond
  - Mr Roger Mosey
Independent Television Association Ltd -Mr Steven Anderson
Channel 4 Television Corporation -Mr David Lloyd
British Sky Broadcasting Limited -Mr Nick Pollard
Channel 5 Broadcasting Limited -Mr Chris Shaw
appointed by all shareholders -Mr Paul Mathews

All directors have one vote and the Chairman has a casting vote in the event of a tie.

23. The board usually meets twice a year: in February or March prior to its AGM, and in the Summer to approve a budget for the forthcoming year beginning on 1 October.

24. At the February/March board meeting each year the board is asked to review the authority granted to an Executive Committee of the board to see to the running of the company on a day to day basis. Paul Mathews is a member of the Executive Committee and is a part-time employee of the company. The other members of the Executive Committee are Barbara Long, the Supervisor of Parliamentary Broadcasting, and Peter Phillips who, with his staff at the BBC, manages the company's accounts.

25. At each board meeting the Executive Directors report on matters arising since the previous meeting and answer questions from the other directors on the company's affairs. Any director is entitled to convene a meeting of the board at any time.

26. The shareholders have entered into an agreement between themselves and PARBUL whereby they agree to fund PARBUL's gross expenditure each year to the extent of the budget previously agreed by them and adopted by the board at its summer meeting. (This shareholder's agreement expires in 2001 when the copyright licences from the House of Commons and the House of Lords referred to in paragraph 19 above may be terminated by the Speaker and the Clerk of the Parliaments.) This agreement ensures that, as PARBUL's liabilities are unlikely to be fully met from its income, the shortfall will be met by the shareholders.

27. PARBUL has served its purpose, and the Committee commends the constructive working relationship that has grown up between Parliamentarians and broadcasters. There is, however, one matter which the Committee believes warrants further investigation—that of the Commons Directors.

28. We accept absolutely that the Chairman of Ways and Means should be Chairman of PARBUL and that the Leader of the House should be a member. Our concern is over the remaining Commons Directors. As now, they should be appointed by the Speaker, but the Committee is no longer convinced that they should be drawn from the membership of the Broadcasting Committee.

29. PARBUL and the Committee have very different remits, and for members of the Committee to be also members of PARBUL may mean that they may have to represent, or at least appear to represent, conflicting interests.

30. The Committee therefore recommends that the House considers whether members of the Broadcasting Committee be precluded from membership of PARBUL. At the same time, it would, of course, be invaluable for the Chairman of the Committee to be able to report the Committee's views and concerns to PARBUL, and vice versa. We therefore recommend further that the Chairman of the Committee be accorded "observer status" to PARBUL, with all rights, save that of voting.

(b) Current coverage

31. Proceedings in both main Chambers are televised in full— Committee meetings and sitting of the House in Westminster Hall are covered according to broadcaster demand.

32. Proceedings of the House of Commons are televised "gavel-to-gavel" by the use of remote control cameras in the main Chamber operated from a control room at 7 Millbank (as are proceedings of the House of Lords).

33. Any Standing or Select Committee meeting in public may be televised by the use of mobile units ('trolleys') at the request of broadcasters. Four Select Committee rooms (6, 8, 15 and 21) are equipped for coverage, as are rooms 10 and 14 for Standing Committees. Sittings of the House in Westminster Hall are also covered using one of the mobile units.

34. A maximum of four mobile units can be operational at any one time alongside coverage of the main Chamber(s). Committees meeting in public away from Westminster may be televised through ad hoc arrangements.

35. Of Select, Standing and Grand Committees sitting in public, only a very small percentage have been televised.[14] All Sittings of the House in Westminster Hall since the experiment started in November 1999 have, so far, been covered.

(c) Viewing/outlets

36. The digital channel, BBC Parliament, carries live coverage of the main Chamber and unedited coverage of approximately ten Select Committees each week. BBC 2, BBC 24 and Sky News take Prime Minister's Questions live, along with some Ministerial statements and Committee evidence. Most broadcasters use brief extracts of Parliamentary material in news bulletins and current affairs programmes.

37. In addition to the main domestic broadcasters (BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and BSkyB), Parliamentary material is also broadcast regularly by regional companies and, internationally, by WTN, Reuters and Associated Press.

38. The BBC, PA, ITN and Westminster Digital have PARBUL licences to use Parliamentary material on their websites.

39. The material is also archived by the Parliamentary Recording Unit which handled 114 requests for material from domestic and foreign broadcasters in 1999 (in addition to supplying tapes to MPs, Government Departments, educational organisations, charities etc).

(d) Developments in camera grammar

40. In evidence to the Committee, broadcasters argued that the Rules of Coverage were now out of date. David Lloyd, Head of News and Current Affairs for Channel 4, on 2 November 1999 put the views of the broadcasters comprehensively, and which are worth repeating at length, when he said:

  "While I think it is true that broadcasters can demonstrate their obligation throughout the last ten years to fair and balanced coverage, I think we all have to ask whether these rules as they currently are can possibly be judged to deliver coverage that is full and accurate? Let us take, first of all, if I may, the stricture against close-up shots. The technical rule states: "The standard format for depicting the Member who has the floor should be a head and shoulders shot, not a close-up". I think it is fair to ask why exactly? The whole point about modern television direction is that a close-up is sometimes appropriate, and sometimes not. All good directors use the close-up sparingly so as not to devalue the coinage. So why is it, I think we must ask, that a director can be trusted to judge the use of close-ups at a party conference, on Newsnight, on Channel 4 News, but not in the Chamber of the House of Commons? Small wonder perhaps that some of our viewers find the coverage distant and unexciting as a result. Take, again, perhaps the protocol on cut-away shots. "Occasional cut-away shots to illustrate individual reactions are allowed, but only to show a Member who has been referred to by the Member speaking". The point, though, about any political debate, surely—one might say about any human interaction— is that it cannot be fully or accurately represented within such stilted regulations. No wonder again that some of our viewers find so much of the coverage lacking in the very dynamic that they experiences when sitting in the public gallery, and yet the objective, clearly states, was to have been a full and accurate account of proceedings. One should not forget that this concession to cut-aways is not vouchsafed in Question Time, Private Notice Questions or Ministerial Statements. Here any depiction of interest, or even disinterest, on the part of any Member referred to is out of bounds to our audience, your electorate. All this within the stated rubric of providing a full and accurate account of proceedings".[15]

He concluded by stating:

  "I have to say that it we were to loosen the shackles of the current rules I believe that the director could be allowed to portray the business of the House as fully and accurately as any other aspect of politics. We could then allow the viewer the same engagement as is vouchsafed to anyone in the public gallery and, we all hope, bring a new audience to politics and relocate a departed one".[16]

41. The Committee has the delegated authority to lift the restriction on the use of reaction shots of named or identifiable Members during Question Time, Ministerial Statements and Private Notice Questions; we propose to exercise that authority, with effect from the start of Session 2000-2001.

11   Paras. 17-26 are updated from paras. 1-8, evidence 2 November 1999, pp. 54-55. Back

12   See Appendix 4 for details of the Parliamentary Recording Unit. Back

13   The current five year contract between PARBUL and CCT ends in July 2001. Back

14   For example, in Session 1996-97 only 28 per cent of "notified" Standing Committee meetings (i.e. meetings in public of which broadcasters were advised in advance) were televised. (Source: Supervisor of Parliamentary Broadcasting) Back

15   Q.178. Back

16   Ibid. Back

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Prepared 5 July 2000