Skip to main content

Hansard of the air

When the new Commons Chamber opened in 1950 it included microphones for the first time. It took another 38 years for the Speaker's cry of "Order! Order!" to be heard on the airwaves.

The BBC's first director-general, John Reith, had wanted to broadcast Parliament from the formation of the British Broadcasting Company in 1922. He proposed live radio coverage of the King's Speech or Budget statement, but the Government rejected the idea. Whenever the prospect of broadcasting Parliament was raised in the Commons during the 1920s and 1930s it was always rejected by the Prime Minister of the day.

The Labour Government of Clement Attlee did set up an inquiry into broadcasting under Sir William Beveridge, but his committee advised in 1949 that the effect of broadcasting proceedings would be harmful. In 1968 the Commons tried a private experiment with radio coverage, but despite a positive outcome it was deemed too expensive.

Finally, in 1975, MPs backed public radio broadcasting and a month-long experiment began on 9 June 1975. Following a report from the Services Committee on the experiment, MPs debated it on 8 March and 16 March 1976 and voted for radio broadcasting on a permanent basis.

New audiences

There was evidence that broadcasting had increased public interest in Parliament. Prime Minister's Questions attracted large audiences, while the BBC's Yesterday in Parliament programme - dubbed the 'Hansard of the air' - increased its number of listeners.

On 3 April 1978 the permanent broadcasting of the Commons began with the Secretary of State for Wales answering questions on the Welsh language. The House of Lords began transmitting the following day.

The atmosphere in the Commons Chamber was transformed. "Members who had been silent since I had been elected Speaker suddenly came to life," recalled George Thomas, who had initially opposed the installation of microphones. "It was as though the dead had been restored to life and had found a new aggressiveness."

Major parliamentary events, such as the no-confidence motion which brought down the Government in March 1979, were broadcast live on air.

Broadcasts from the archive: 1979

Related information

Historic Hansard

The Commons debate on the radio experiment

Hansard record of the first permanent broadcast of the Commons

Record of the first Lords debate to be broadcast on radio