Tuesday, 24 December 2013 00:01
Following the approval of live telecast of Parliament proceedings recently, there has been much discussion. Last week a Government MP complained about an Opposition MP for abuse. The Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa on Friday warned the House to “follow the Standing Orders and to stop using filth, vulgar, and slang” from 21 January 2014 in response to a request of some Government members wanting to discontinue the live telecast of the Parliament proceedings telecasted over PeoTV channel 91. Today the Daily FT reproduces a speech made by Milinda Moragoda in Parliament way back in 2001 in which he explains television, radio and the internet have become an intrinsic part of everyday life in 21st century society
“I move, whereas television, radio and the internet have now become an intrinsic part of everyday life in 21st century society, and whereas many modern democracies broadcast live the proceedings of their respective Legislatures thereby affording transparency to the public policy making process, and whereas if Sri Lanka is to keep abreast of these modern trends and make the people at large truly participate in the democratic process, it is necessary that they be made aware of the proceedings of Parliament in a more proximate sense than at present.
“This House is of the view that it is timely and desirable that the proceedings of the House and its Committees be nationally broadcast live under the authority of the House in keeping with a set of ground rules and procedures. I move that it be hereby resolved that the Committee on Parliamentary Business do work out the modalities and mechanisms for broadcasting the proceedings of the House and its Committees on a real time basis.
“The said Committee shall be authorised to send for persons, papers and records and may order any person to attend before the Committee and to produce any paper, book, record or document in his possession. And that the Committee submit a report to the House on or before 28 February 2001.”
Live national broadcasting
Mr. Speaker, it is an honour and a privilege to move this Motion, to authorise the Committee on Parliamentary Business to work out the modalities and mechanisms for the live national broadcasting on television and radio of the proceedings of this House and its more important Committees. I would like at the very outset to thank you, Mr. Speaker, as well as the Hon. Prime Minister, the Hon. Leader of the House, the Hon. Leader of the Opposition and the leaders of all political parties in Parliament for supporting this initiative, which I believe will mark an important milestone in the evolution of democracy in this country.
Over 200 years ago, one of the founding fathers of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, was forced to abandon his vision of a direct democracy where people could collectively make their own decisions through town meetings, and thereby directly steer the decision making process of their country. Today, through advances in broadcast technology and the birth of the Internet, mankind has finally overcome the logistics that defeated Jefferson. As a result, we Sri Lankans too, have the opportunity which other countries around the world have already taken advantage of, to pick up where the Jeffersonian vision would have led to direct democracy.
In this context, the broadcasting of our Parliamentary proceedings through television and radio would provide the opportunity for our citizens even in the most remote areas of the country, to observe, understand and participate in the lawmaking process. This would be the first phase in what would ideally develop into an ongoing dialogue between the people and their elected representatives, on the issues that affect our nation. The transparency that this process creates would empower citizens by raising their awareness of issues and lawmaking processes. Just as importantly, this access to information should catalyse the formation of public interest groups as well as spur more public debate on issues affecting everyone’s lives.
Initially, public feedback would reach Members of Parliament either directly or through the filter of the print and electronic media. As internet connectivity increases, it is possible to envision the day when Members of Parliament can while even sitting in their offices, receive almost instantaneous feedback directly from their constituents via e-mail and the internet, as is already occurring in other countries.
Mr. Speaker, there is no doubt that the live broadcasting of the proceedings of this House will have a salutary impact on the manner in which this House conducts its business. If the experience of other countries is anything to go by, after an initial adjustment period, during which some of us may well seek to perform for the cameras, we are likely to see an improvement in both attendance and the quality of debate, where debate will be better researched, better argued, and hopefully more constructive, and based on substance rather than on personal attacks. In fact, in other parts of the world, it has been demonstrated that with the advent of televised proceedings, speeches have become shorter and more to the point. The former Speaker of the British House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd, has been quoted as saying that the best speeches she has heard in the House of Commons have lasted no more than 12 minutes.
Mr. Speaker, since this Motion would authorise the Committee on Parliamentary Business to work out the modalities and mechanisms for the broadcasting of the proceedings, it is imperative that this Committee ensures that the structure and ground rules for this process are developed in a fair and enlightened manner. Erskine May states that the rules, as they apply to both the British Upper and Lower Houses, have the objective of ensuring that “a full, balanced, fair and accurate account of proceedings” is given and that “the dignity of the House and its function as a working body rather than as a place of entertainment is respected”.
It is my opinion, Mr. Speaker, that the British approach to broadcasting be used as our model. As for the costs involved in this initiative, it is my considered view as a student of economics, and more recently of politics, that the resources deployed will be more than recovered through tangible improvements in the quality of our governance. In conclusion, as we enter into this new phase of increased transparency of the legislative process, a heavier burden will be cast upon us law-makers, since this will force us to be more accountable for our actions and statements. However, the viability of this process is contingent upon the active participation of our citizens.
To illustrate this last point, I can do no better than to end with a quotation recorded in the 5th Century B.C., by the Greek historian, Thucydides, from the birthplace of direct democracy, Athens. In an address made by Pericles to his fellow Athenians, Pericles was recorded by Thucydides to have said: “Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the State as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their business are extremely well informed on general politics – this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.”
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
(This is the second motion presented by Milinda Moragoda in Parliament in 12 January 2001. Previous speeches can be viewed at www.milinda.org.)