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Brown goes YouTube

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Two cheers for Gordon Brown! In the interests of putting some sparkle back into his dour premiership – sorry, “engage the wider public” – the Prime Minister is launching an online version of Prime Minister’s Questions. On Youtube.

If you want to “Ask Gordon”, just upload your question on videoclip to the Downing Street YouTube site. And hey presto! Within no less than several weeks, you may be able to hear the Prime Minister’s dulcet tones responding directly to YOUR question.

Some may see this a cynical response to David Cameron’s jibe that Mr Brown is “an analogue politician in a digital age”. Certainly, the Tory leader's live webcam broadcasts from his breakfast table help to make him sound more in touch with digital technologies.

There is still more to this than meets the eye.

Over the last couple of months, Jo Swinson, Lib Dem MP for East Dunbartonshire, has received a frosty reception to her call for greater availability of parliamentary proceedings on places like Youtube.

Under present rules any televisual record of Parliamentary proceedings is subject to a licence issued by the Speaker. This stipulates that material must not be hosted on a searchable website and must not be downloadable.

When challenged on this, Helen Goodman, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, reprised the standard line that the rule exists “to ensure that it [material] is not re-edited or reused inappropriately for campaigning or satirical purposes”.

Possibly Ms Goodman is afraid that British politicians may receive the same treatment as George Bush. American views on free speech regularly lead to some seriously robust use of political material.

Or perhaps she remembers a faux pas committed some years back the New Zealand parliament. In front of a packed house and a female Prime Minister, John Carter, for the National Party, accused the Government of being responsible for a series of “cunning stunts”. At least, that’s what he meant to accuse them of.

Luckily, the Speaker of the House at the time ruled that what Hansard should record was what he meant – not what he said. Dignity was preserved.

Such editing of history would not be possible if the original clip of the event was available on a public site.

Clearly there are risks to making parliamentary recordings more widely available. Outbreaks of mass boredom, for one. However, the logic behind the message being put out by Parliament appears flawed. We are still permitted to mock our politicians - we are allowed all manner of visual satirical outlets, from Dead Ringers to Headcases - but we are not officially allowed actual clips of our politicians making fools of themselves. (Although a quick search of YouTube turns up plenty unofficial clips.)

In April, Jo Swinson put down an Early Day Motion asking that “video footage of parliamentary proceedings should be made available to the public on video hosting websites such as YouTube”.

Such motions tend to be little more than wish lists with little chance of going anywhere. However, Ms Swinson is not giving up, and will be pressing Ministers on this issue in the coming months.

Of Gordon Brown’s initiative, she said: “It is a step in the right direction... [but] there is a suspicion it has originated merely as a reaction to David Cameron’s ‘analogue Prime Minister’ taunts.”

Still, the Prime Minister is breaking down the barriers just a little bit. So he is going to take his time responding. It is going to be controlled. Naturally. And any response will be carefully scripted, airbrushed and hairsprayed into place in order to put across the preferred spin. Nonetheless, it is a start.

Meanwhile, if you are interested in asking a question – or just viewing some of the questions already posted – click thru to the Downing Street website and take a look for yourself. ®

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