The Houses of Parliament are about to come under the constant scrutiny of cable television, writes Sean Coughlan. The death of democracy will be and always has been apathy," says Lord Weatherill, former Speaker of the House of Commons. After 30 years in Parliament, he is now leading a cable television project designed to make Westminster life relevant and comprehensible to a young generation which is increasingly indifferent to politics.
As chairman of the Parliamentary Channel, he heads a non-profit making cable service which offers live and recorded coverage of both Houses of Parliament a channel which will be of particular interest to schools currently being offered free cable television by their local operators.
As an introduction to the service, the Parliamentary Channel has produced a free video pack for schools, which seeks to make the often complex language and procedure of Parliament accessible to a young audience. Here the history and symbolism of parliamentary traditions such as Black Rod, the mace and the two swords'-length divide between opposing benches are all explained, along with the processes by which a bill becomes a law.
But with political skeletons tumbling out of every cupboard in Westminster, isn't there a danger that Parliament is losing its credibility in the eyes of the next generation of voters?
"There's never been a Golden Age," says Lord Weatherill, putting the current question marks against parliamentary probity into a historical and international perspective. He cites Boswell's observations of parliamentary torpor in 1763 of "a member lying stretched out on one of the benches while others crack nuts or eat oranges or whatever else is in season", and says that there has always been criticism of Parliament as being a House of ill-repute.
Compared to the brawls recently seen in Italy's parliament and the corruption bubbling under the surface of others, the Houses of Parliament, he believes, offer a relative model of good behaviour. "There's no country in the world where people are more personally represented. Looking in from abroad, our Parliament is looked upon with a respect almost touching on awe."
If the baying and baiting of question time gets the House of Commons a bad name, then Lord Weatherill also hopes that the Parliamentary Channel will give viewers a fuller appreciation of the political process. "It's a gavel-to-gavel presentation, not edited highlights and that's an important difference for the public perception of Parliament," he says.
Although supporting the public's right to follow the proceedings of their parliamentary representatives, Lord Weatherill also believes that the introduction of television cameras has brought out the self-publicising and headline-hunting instincts of politicians. "It's destroyed debate. What we were beginning to get in my day as Speaker was repetition, the obvious point made again and again, with members not speaking to the House of Commons but to their constituents watching television. You might say that's bad, but you could also say that that's what Parliament is all about."
With experience of both chambers, Lord Weatherill says that the debates in the peers' house are "infinitely more informed than in the Commons". This, he says, is because speakers in the upper house tend to be addressing issues about which they have first-hand expert knowledge, rather than information gleaned from a brief.
Such professional politicians in the House of Commons run the risk of losing touch with public opinion, he says, arguing against moves to limit the non-parliamentary interests of MPs. "We're losing the concept of the citizen member and it's massively to the detriment of Parliament. The reason that members lose touch is that they don't go into the real world to see the consequences of their votes."
When he was a Whip in the House of Commons, Bernard Weatherill also ran his business as a Savile Row tailor, and he recalls how William Whitelaw used to tell him to leave Westminster and to 'get up to that shop of yours and find out what they're saying about us.' It was a marvellous listening post".
With an evident faith in the importance of protecting the reputation of parliamentary democracy, he says that members have "an absolute duty to set the highest possible example". If such a responsibility is neglected, he quotes a warning from Plato which he came across during the celebration of the 2, 500th anniversary of democracy in Greece: "The penalty that good men and women pay for failing to participate in public affairs is to be governed by others worse than themselves."
The Parliamentary Channel pack, is available from the Parliamentary Channel, Twyman House, 16 Bonny Street, London NW1 9PG. The Parliamentary Channel carries live coverage of the House of Commons from 2.30pm on Mondays to Thursdays and 9.30am on Fridays. Recordings of the House of Lords proceedings are carried in the morning and Select Committee coverage will begin in early 1995.