The broadcasting of Parliamentary debates in both the
House of Commons and Lords as well the proceedings
of many Committees is still a comparatively new
phenomenon in the United Kingdom.
But since the first radio broadcasts in 1978 and
television experiments in 1989 the process has done
much to stimulate knowledge of the workings of
Parliament. And since 2003 the proceedings have
additional y been webcast on the internet with an
archive available for public access.
In addition, the careful y preserved tapes of former
broadcasts are building a fascinating archive for future
historians as well as providing a contemporary record
for those who wish to study a particular debate or
Britain’s broadcasters were swift to recognise the
audience potential of Parliamentary proceedings. In
1923, the BBC’s first General Manager, John Reith
sought to broadcast the King’s Speech at the State
Opening of Parliament.
The request was turned down and it was
only in 1978 that the first live radio broadcasts of
Question Time began. Two years later these were
discontinued and throughout the 1980s the debate on
televising Parliament raged.
The House of Lords took a more relaxed view,
authorising a televising experiment in 1985. The
success of this helped to swing the argument in the
House of Commons. In November 1989 televising
was given the go-ahead on an experimental basis and
subject to strict restrictions and in July 1990, the
televising of Parliament became a permanent feature
of UK political life.
The restrictions on the broadcasters were laid down
after much deliberation by a Select Committee on
Broadcasting, chaired by the Leader of the House of
Commons. This Committee established three main
• the House would at all times have the final and
principal say in any matter concerning television in
• broadcasters should pay the main cost of television
• the dignity of the House was to be protected at all
The Committee laid down Rules of Coverage which
remained largely unaltered until late 2006, when
the Speaker agreed to al ow a more relaxed style of
televising (although still within some restrictions). It
also decided that an independent production company
should carry out the televising operation not a
Department of the House; Select Committee coverage
should be subsidised by the House and a Supervisor
of Parliamentary Broadcasting (now known as the
Director of Parliamentary Broadcasting) should be
appointed with executive powers to act on the Select
Through the Rules of Coverage Parliament has
absolute control over the format of the pictures
broadcasters receive but its control over the use of the
material is less clear cut and can cause difficulties.
3. The Format
The pictures (known in the technical jargon as the
‘clean feed’ or ‘signals’) supplied to the broadcasters
are chosen by television directors in the Parliamentary
control room. They are bound by detailed Rules of
Coverage laid down by the House. These rules are
designed to protect the dignity of the House and
ensure that coverage focuses on what is being said.
The director is required to give ‘a ful , balanced and
accurate account of proceedings, with the aim of
informing viewers about the work of the House’.
The camera mainly concentrates on a single shot of
the Member speaking but wide angle shots of the
Chamber may be used from time to time when the
director is seeking a closer shot of a Member who has
just been cal ed to speak or to give viewers a global
view of the chamber. Directors may now also show
appropriate reaction shots of Members when this
helps to convey the mood of the House.
The cameras are not al owed to focus on the press
and public gal eries, the Speaker receiving advice or
on any public disturbance. Directors must feature the
chair whenever its occupant rises or in the case of
a disturbance or altercation between the chair and
The Select Committee has the power to amend these
rules and relies for day to day enforcement on the
Director of Parliamentary Broadcasting, an Officer
of both Houses who reports to the Administration
Committee in the Commons and the Information
Committee in the Lords.
4. The Use
Guidelines on the use of the pictures are less
prescriptive. They do specify that no extracts from
Parliamentary proceedings may be used in comedy
shows or other light entertainment such as political
satire. But broadcasters are al owed to include
Parliamentary items in magazine programmes
containing musical or humourous features, provided
the reports are kept separate.
No extracts from Parliamentary proceedings may be
used in any form of advertising, promotion or publicity
except for programmes which cover Parliamentary
topics within the framework of the Rules.
The ban used to include the use of Parliamentary
material in Party Political broadcasts – but this was
changed in 1993 to al ow the use of an extract from a
speech made by a Member of the party in question.
However, any MP or Peer featured must give his/
her explicit permission and ‘wide shots’ or material
featuring exchanges between parties are still banned.
Policing the use of Parliamentary pictures is potential y
difficult. Technical y, recommendations such as these
contained in a Select Committee Report have the
same status as an Order of the House, disregard of
which can constitute a contempt.
But there are gradations of action open to the
Committee which fall short of contempt which have
proved effective in the past. These include informal
reminders of the rules, formal letter of admonition
and summoning named persons before the Committee
(this last action has never been needed).
Parliament and the major broadcasters set up the
Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit Limited (PARBUL) as
the forum for organising the televising of Parliamentary
PARBUL is whol y funded by its broadcaster
shareholders (BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and
BskyB) but the Board includes an equal number
of directors from the two Houses. It is chaired by
the Chairman of Ways and Means, whose casting
vote ensures Parliament retains control over the
broadcasting of its own proceedings.
The Director of Parliamentary Broadcasting is also
an Executive Director of PARBUL, representing
Parliament’s interests day to day.
PARBUL employs an independent production company
to operate the camera systems, which are provided by
Parliament and holds licences from the Speaker in the
Commons and the Clerk of Parliaments in the House
of Lords. These al ow PARBUL to exploit the signals
from the main Chambers commercial y for the first
14 days in return for funding. (Both copyright and the
right to exploit the use of signals for non-broadcasting
purposes remain with Parliament throughout.) All
other broadcasters with access to the television feed
in Westminster pay a fee for the service.
Further money is raised through the sale of one-
off recordings to appropriate organisations such as
education organisations, Departments of State or
Proceedings in both Commons and Lords are covered
‘gavel to gavel’ by remote control cameras in each
Chamber operated from control rooms at 7 Mil bank
– eight cameras in the Commons and five in the
Lords. Sittings of the House in Westminster Hal are
also covered ‘gavel to gavel’ by five remote control ed
cameras operated from a control room in the Palace of
Any Committee meeting in public may be televised
at the request of broadcasters, who pay the camera
operating costs involved. Two mobile televising units
are in use on the main committee corridor where
four Select Committee rooms and rooms 10 and 14,
designed for Standing Committees, are equipped for
broadcast coverage. The House of Lords has a fixed
television control room from which cameras may be
operated in any one of four committee rooms.
At the same time a further two committees can be
televised simultaneously from Portcul is House, the
new building opened across the road from the Palace
of Westminster in 2000. Here four Select Committee
rooms and two multi purpose rooms are wired for
camera coverage, linked through two permanent control
The opening of Portcul is House brought digital
televising to Parliament for the first time. And a
permanent digital system was instal ed in the Grand
Committee Room, where Sittings of the House in
Westminster Hal had previously been covered by the
use of mobile equipment.
But the rol ing programme of development did not
stop there. By September 2002 al parliamentary
televising was ful y digital, with two new mobile
units for committee coverage in the main Palace on
stream, and the camera systems and control rooms in
both Chambers replaced - and Parliament had gone
In January 2002 the two Houses started to harness
the potential of the internet. launched an experimental
service transmitting audio and audio-visual coverage
of Proceedings via “webcasts”
In September 2003 www.parliamentlive.tv was made
permanent carrying coverage of debates in both
Chambers and debates in Westminster Hal , some
explanatory captioning, an on-demand 14 day archive
and live audio or audio-visual coverage of every
committee which is meeting in public. The archive
duration was increased to 28 days, and this will
become a full year archive in the near future.
In 2006 a project was initiated to start a rol ing
programme to introduce unattended web cameras into
committee rooms to al ow wider visual coverage of
sessions than those undertaken by the broadcasters.
In 2007 this programme meant that 11 committee
rooms were available for viewing via the
www.parliamentlive.tv web site
A maximum of 18 simulataneous channels can be
webcast - eight in full broadcast quality a/v, an
additional six in web camera quality and the others in
audio. Some weeks as many as 60 public committee
meetings are carried on the web, in addition to the
coverage of the Chambers and Westminster Hal .
There are also informational videos about Parliament
and its Committees.
The site now offers full broadband quality video and
audio at bitrates which equate to the quality of FM
radio. The service is believed to be the most complex
and comprehensive of any legislature in the world.
BBC Parliament, the digital television channel, carries
live coverage of the House of Commons Chamber,
“timeshifted” coverage of the House of Lords and
unedited coverage of several committees a week.
BBC2, BBC 24, and Sky News take Prime
Minister’s Questions live along with some Ministerial
statements and Committee evidence. In addition,
most broadcasters use brief extracts of Parliamentary
material in news bul etins and current events
programmes. This includes the UK’s main domestic
broadcasters (BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5
and BSkyB) as well as regional companies and
international organisations such as WTN, Reuters and
A number of broadcasters and news organisations now
have licences from the Parliamentary Broadcasting
Unit Limited (PARBUL) to use Parliamentary material
on their websites.
Members of the two Houses are al owed to carry
their contributions to debates and Minister’s answers
on their personal websites, too.
All material is archived by the Parliamentary
Recording Unit. This provides video and audio
material of all recorded Parliamentary proceedings to
domestic and foreign broadcasters as well as to MPs,
Peers, Government departments, educational and
commercial organisations, charities and individuals.
The material can be supplied in all current formats,
including on line. Ratecards are available on request.
Director of Parliamentary Broadcasting,
Base of Clock Tower,
House of Commons,
Telephone: 020 7219 5848 / 5849
Parliamentary Recording Unit
7 Mil bank,
London SW1 P3JA
Telephone: 020 7219 5511