Sunday, March 13, 2005

Against Parliamentary Censorship

Nick Venter had an excellent piece in the Dominion Post yesterday (sadly not online) on Parliament's plans to censor press coverage from the debating chamber so as to prevent MPs being shown in a poor light. Not that they're putting it like that, oh no - but a vital part of their plan to broadcast Parliament seems to be the removal of all other TV cameras. And the resulting footage will be fully under control of MPs themselves.

To see what this ultimately means, we only have to look across the Tasman. The Australian Parliament has an in-house unit to provide TV and still images of Parliamentary debates. And when President Bush visited in 2003, this footage was sanitised by the government to avoid "embarassment". The Australian media were reduced to having to buy footage from CNN - who had illegally filmed proceedings within the chamber for their US audiance - in order to show the interjections of MPs opposed to Bush, and the way their were roughly manhandled out of the chamber. Later, still photos of Bush meeting the leader of the opposition were banned, while those of him with Howard were provided to the media; the Australiam government used its control over footage to present itself in the best light, while denying the opposition coverage.

But we don't need to go to such Orwellian extremes to see that Parliamentary control of footage would be a Bad Thing. Members of Parliament are rather touchy about their image, and so Parliament already place heavy restrictions on what the media is and isn't allowed to film. Apart from the occasional wide-angle background shot, the media are currently allowed to film or photograph MPs only when they are on their feet and speaking. They are not, for example, allowed to film them yawning, knitting, reading the paper or sleeping in their seats - and as Venter recounts, illustrating a story about MPs granting themselves a pay rise with footage of them laughing in the chamber results in being summoned to the Speaker's office.

There is a word for this - censorship - and we should not tolerate it. Instead, we should demand that Parliament operate in a fully open and transparent manner, and allow the media free access to film whatever is most interesting or newsworthy. In the television age, media coverage is a vital means of ensuring democratic accountability, and that is far more important than MP's dignity.