How embarrassing is the BBC’s Inside The Commons for parliament’s bigwigs?
It was an extraordinary gamble for a parliament shamed by the expenses scandal – so has letting the TV cameras into the Commons left MPs looking even worse than they did before?
Michael Cockerell and his team of cameramen have been omnipresent for the last year or so. The level of access they've had is unprecedented, because the Commons has always been touchy about any kind of scrutiny. When I made a documentary for BBC Radio 4 last year the rigmarole of getting permission to record in the main building – which, as officials pointed out, is still a royal palace – was truly astonishing. So it's no surprise to learn it took Cockerell six years to get the green light for this project.
The officials running parliament said 'yes' because they're determined to show the Commons is changing. They may work in a crumbling, Victorian mock Gothic Palace – and many of its important people wear what look like something out of a Harry Potter movie – but they are up-to-date, honest.
This week's episode portrayed parliament for what it is: its reputation as battered as the fabric of the building is in tatters. Some MPs, like the likeable stars Sarah Champion and Charlotte Leslie, are all for shaking up the fusty traditions that make parliament what it is; others seem like living embodiments of Westminster's antiquated way of doing things. It is in revealing the Commons' most enduring habits that Cockerell comes closest to making parliament look bad.
Here's a few of the most misleading parts of the programme that some in the Palace might feel were a bit harsh:
- Sir Robert Rogers taking snuff outside the Commons chamber and declaring "my goodness, that's invigorating!" This is a centuries-old tradition that Sir Robert has long highlighted as one of the idiosyncrasies of his job. Putting it in the programme's intro was attention-grabbing, but also cringeworthy.
- Labour MP Steve Rotherham complaining about people in parliament being rude when he held open doors for others. "Not one of them said 'ta, thanks very much'," he moaned. This is simply not true. Everyone in parliament is polite – just like everywhere else.
- Conservative MP Andrew Percy isn't impressed with the geographical partisanship of the members' tea room. "When I first came here I sat in the wrong place," he says. "Somebody said 'that's a Labour table'. And I thought, there's all these old traditions. You go in a coffee shop and you sit where you want, don't you'?" Is this something to whinge about? Or isn't it just like any sixth form common room, where people sit in the same place?
These minor glitches are as nothing to the series' overarching narrative, though. This was hinted at in the story of the clerk, Sir Robert Rogers. Episode one finishes with the moving applause given to Sir Robert by MPs when Speaker John Bercow – who was virtually absent from the programme – confirmed to the Commons his plan to take early retirement.
We all know what followed: a botched recruitment process to find a new clerk that left Bercow damaged and abashed. How Cockerell treats the story of MPs' revolt against the Speaker's plans to split Sir Robert's job into two will have a real impact on the public's perception of parliament.
The Speaker, having watched last night's programme, must have felt qualms about how this story would play out in the three remaining episodes. It is entirely possible that, when viewed in its entirely, Inside The Commons will reveal our parliament to be a nobler, better place than many of the public thought it to be – while Bercow will end up looking diminished.