Parliamentary Select Committees live on TV - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire aviator's autobiography
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Parliamentary Select Committees live on TV

This piece was first published in my Blog in August 2011 and is here reproduced word for word, except for an afterthought at the very end.

Yesterday, I found myself glued to the TV screen for most of the live transmission from the Home Affairs Select Committee during the 'interrogations' of senior police officers, past and present. It was the first time I had watched that Committee. It was largely a farce! (Chambers: farce: an absurd situation; something ludicrously badly organised, from French farce: stuffing.)

I expected to see and hear a well-behaved and professional inquiry into the matters at hand - recent riots and public unrest on the streets. What we got was a soap opera (hackneyed phrase I know but that truly is was it seemed like to me). I have to admit that the only MPs on this committee I've ever heard of apart from the Chairman, Keith Vaz, are Alun Michael and David Winnick - the latter, as always, was incisive and a perfect gentleman throughout. Certain members of the Select Committee, the ones who are not known to ordinary members of the public such as me, were quite plainly playing to the television cameras – and to their Party Leaders. You could see it in their faces: “This is my big moment to make a name for myself on TV and advance my career,” they seemed to be thinking. The senior police officers, who naturally know a bit about interrogation, sorry - interview techniques, were cool and calm throughout, and used the well-proven technique of speaking only when the questioner shuts up, and then answering only the precise question that was asked. (I write as a former military instructor on interrogation methods - see footnote below)

Some asked prepared questions that had already been asked, and answered, by another committee member but others had presumably been so busy rehearsing their own questions that they were not paying attention to the other speakers. Some really had nothing to contribute and when called to make a contribution by Keith Vaz, for whom I’ve long had a great deal of respect, were virtually speechless or incoherent. I lost count of the number of times the Chairman had to intervene to explain what the questioner had meant to ask.

Before the proceedings had got under way, but while the TV cameras were live, there was an indication of what to expect. As one national newspaper put it in today’s edítion: “Beforehand there was a rehearsed stunt when Julian Huppert (Lib Dem, Cambridge) asked Mr Vaz what happened to witnesses who lied. Mr Vaz said they could be summoned to the very Chamber of the Commons, there to be punished.” That's what I mean when I say it was a soap opera. That moment could have been a good cliff-hanger to cut to a commercial break!

One MP asked one of the witnesses an operational question to which the policeman was able to reply, “I had already retired from the Metropolitan Police at that time so I have no knowledge of what you asked me.” When a female MP asked one of the senior officers if he had ever taken a bribe, I would have excused him if he'd responded, “Have you?” The question was downright rude and I consider he was entitled to reply, as he did, “Good God, I can’t believe you asked that question?”

Yesterday’s proceedings were farcical and I for one was no wiser at the end than I had been at the start. I learned that Parliamentary committee proceedings are only shown live on TV when there is a complete dearth of other news, or a potentially juicy subject is on the agenda when, as yesterday, the TV companies expect a soap opera scenario to develop. When there is nothing controversial going on, both BBC and Sky quickly find an excuse to leave committee proceedings as soon as they can before all their viewers zap to another channel. Yesterday, there were hours and hours of live stuff and at the end I regretted the time I had wasted by watching it all. I was also no better informed.

MPs are forever going on and on, ad nauseam, about how they must regain the respect of the voters. Today's performance set them back considerably. They still have a very long way to go - and I fear this afternoon’s PMQs, followed by the PM’s phone-hacking statement, followed by a debate in the House about the News Corp bid for BSkyB, where all three main parties are, reportedly, in complete agreement, presages several more hours of pointless live TV. I will not be watching!

Afterthought on 07 January 2018. It is only since I retired in 2001 that I started taking an active interest in politics. While I was in the RAF I, like most of my colleagues, kept out of politics - publicly at least. In more recent years I have made a point of watching Prime Minister's Questions, but I've now given that up as well because it is 80% posturing and 20% uproar. PMQs used to last 30 minutes but some time ago Mr Speaker started letting it run on for up to 50 minutes to try and accommodate all the MPs who wished to ask a question. What did we get? An extra 20 minutes posturing and uproar.

Footnote: If you are interested in my time as a military interrogator try this page on my website (opens on a new page).

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