20 Oct 2019

Taking shots at MPs: the rules for filming the House

From The House , 7:30 am on 20 October 2019

At the end of every three year term of Parliament senior MPs sit down and decide which rules to change for their next round. At that point they’re not sure who will win the election so they can’t be sure the new rules will favour themselves or their opponents.

Changes require ‘near unanimity’. That can mean reaching agreement is difficult, and seldom is everyone happy.

New speakers usually make a few tweaks (called Sessional Orders and which only last till the next election), when a new Parliament begins. 

Sometimes one party seeks leverage to demand further adjustments to suit themselves - as National did in 2017 when they threatened to put forward their own last-minute candidate for Speaker unless there were changes to the agreed select committee structure.

Deputy PM and New Zealand First leader Winston Peters

A shot well within the rules. Winston Peters in the chamber.  Photo: © VNP / Phil Smith

And sometimes the parties argue over what the rules are. Like the recent impasse over the use of Parliament TV video. Last month the Speaker ruled that The National Party was breaking the rules in using Parliament TV footage for political advertising. National then refused to take down the videos and had their leader’s questions in the House reduced, as a punishment; until Simon Bridges relented on Friday.

At the previous review of the rules Labour had been in favour of relaxing the video rule. The Speaker suggested that the impending review of Standing Orders start early to consider just the video rules, particularly the section (Appendix D: Part B) about who can use the official footage, and how.

So on Thursday the Standing Orders Committee sat down to nut it out and heard evidence from a few submitters including the leadership of the Parliamentary Press Gallery.

The Press Gallery weren’t really there to talk about the video rules, though gallery chair Sam Sachdeva said they too were in favour of liberalisation. They were instead grabbing the opportunity to talk about the rules as they apply to photography. They even brought show-and-tell items (photos they consider outside the current rules but worthy of being allowed).

Which is where the story gets complicated. Because the rules for what is allowed in photography are very unclear.

Jami-Lee Ross at Simon Bridges' side during a session in Parliament.

A moment that was published widely but was possibly outside the rules but very news-worthy. MPs huddle in negotiation when National threatens to pull their support for the Speaker on opening day.   Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The rules for filming were written back when Parliament began to be televised. They are prescriptive and confusing instructions to a TV director about shot selection for live TV, added as an appendix to the Standing Orders. 

But at the end they add “These rules apply also to any other filming from the gallery.” The line was presumably included to prevent news broadcasters from getting around the restrictions on Parliament TV footage by using their own TV cameras Instead.

But without any more specific rules to refer to this appendix is widely presumed to cover filming with still cameras as well, despite clearly being written for video. 

If read with still pictures in mind the list includes many contradictory instructions:

  • “The cameras will cover the member who has been called to speak until the member’s speech is finished”
  • “The television director may choose other shots to reflect the business transacted, such as a wide-angle shot of the Chamber or, during oral questions, a reaction shot of the Minister being asked a question or of a member listening to the reply to a question.”
  • “No close-up shots are permitted of members’ actions and interactions that are unrelated to proceedings.”

So can you only shoot the MP with ’the call’, or also an MP who asked a question during the answer, or indeed any MP as long as their actions are ‘related to proceedings’? Who knows. 

Confusingly, there are also other rules including a Speaker’s Ruling from Jonathan Hunt (Speaker's Rulings are Parliament's version of case law), that is much more restrictive. The Hunt ruling notes that it applies “primarily to stills photography in the Chamber”, but then describes shooting video instead (“gradually returning to focus on the speaker”, “panning”, “broadcast”, ”broadcaster”, “which portions of the proceeding to film”.) It’s all very confusing.

This week I’ve been reading the rules with a mind to a photo essay I‘m editing of action in the House on a typical Wednesday and struggling to determine just how the rules apply, or indeed whether they apply at all. We’ll publish the pics next week - ooh the suspense.   

During the hearing on Thursday Press Gallery chairperson Sam Sachdeva suggested a much simpler formula to the committee.

“If a member of the public or a tourist can walk in off the street, go into the public gallery and see an MP doing it why can’t media show it? It seems like a no-brainer to me."