Last week, the House of Commons took the plunge and publicly livestreamed proceedings as MPs quizzed ministers over Zoom, this “virtual Parliament” being a first in the 700-year-old history of the Palace of Westminster.
Against all odds, things went pretty smoothly, and so, this week, the House of Lords announced that from now on, oral questions, urgent questions, ministerial statements and non-legislative debates, all of which are happening entirely over Microsoft Teams, will also be streamed live on Parliament’s broadcast channel parliamentlive.tv.
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The initiative was, sadly, short-lived. In the Lords’ defense, they did give the idea a shot, and effectively live-streamed a first virtual sitting; but a change of plans was, perhaps understandably, announced shortly thereafter.
“Today’s virtual sitting will not be broadcast live,” read the House’s official Twitter page the next day. “This is due to technical and data compliance issues encountered during yesterday’s sitting. The House of Lords is working hard and at speed to resolve these issues in order to restore live broadcast for tomorrow.”
A spokesperson for the House of Lords told ZDNet that the Clerk of the Parliaments, who is the data controller for the House of Lords Administration, decided to suspend live broadcasting of proceedings until Parliament is fully satisfied that issues have been tested and resolved. The House of Lords is also currently assessing whether a report to the Information Commisioner’s Office (ICO) is necessary.
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You’d be lucky to find the original recording for the one and only sitting that has been live-streamed by the House of Lords so far: the archive has been removed from Parliament’s broadcast channel because it included audio of some participants’ personal mobile phone numbers. The broadcast was taken down and is currently being edited.
In a time of heated debate between team Zoom and team Microsoft Teams, it won’t have escaped some fans’ attention that the House of Lords is using Teams while the House of Commons picked Zoom. So – Zoom, 1 and Microsoft Teams, 0?
All things considered, the first few minutes of the Lords proceeding were encouraging.
Lord Fowler, the Speaker of the House, did some quick housekeeping, repeatedly reminding participants to unmute themselves before speaking and to not use the group chat function. Most Lords stuck to the smart dress code and went for the option of blurring their background, which arguably looks more professional than messy bedrooms and distracting bookshelves.
Of course, there was the occasional virtual background, although it always remained within the theme: Baroness Dianne Hayter, for example, went for a tasteful rendering of the Lords’ chamber.
In some cases, as a result of poor framing, the background was pretty much all the viewer got – aside from a little bit of the top of some Lord’s forehead. Others altogether forgot the number one rule of video conferencing – make sure no siblings, children, relatives, animals, wives, husbands, can interrupt the meeting – and logged in with an unidentified individual standing behind them. But we won’t name and shame.
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Some Lords, despite the clear reminder, forgot to unmute themselves when speaking, and found their question had to be scrapped without mercy. The proceedings, after all, are tightly timed. Some simply never answered when their name was called; and it is still unclear whether they failed to show up or if they were lost in Microsoft Teams limbo. “I know she’s here somewhere,” said the Speaker, faced with silence after calling one Baroness to speak.
Inevitably, poor Internet connection led to the lags, latency and cut-outs that most of us are now familiar with; and speakers unmuting themselves at inopportune moments contributed to the general confusion of participants overlapping.
More problematic, however, was that someone forgot to turn off the exit announcements on the platform. And a question to the government unfortunately loses some credibility when it is interrupted by the suave Microsoft Teams assistant voice informing participants that someone has left the conversation. And that’s all on top of the much more worrying fact that some Lords’ personal phone numbers somehow got exposed in the meeting’s audio.
Granted, it is no easy task to set up a centuries-old parliamentary proceeding for the digital world, and to get it ready to be publicly broadcast without a technical glitch. Parliament has a single broadcasting team that has been working at speed to roll out video-conferencing tools across both Houses. It seems, however, that the Lords could learn some lessons from the virtual proceedings carried out in the House of Commons.
In the case of Parliament, Zoom is likely to be the tool of choice. The Lords’ decision to broadcast proceedings happening via Teams is only an interim step that precedes a move to a “fully integrated system for broadcast”, starting from the 5 May.
From then, the House of Lords is expected to follow the Commons’ lead and switch to Zoom in order to start what Parliament calls “live TV-quality broadcasting” of virtual proceedings; the Parliament’s Procedure Committee called the move a switch to “more sophisticated technology”. Let’s just hope some of the Lords work out where the unmute button is by then.
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