In praise of parliamentary rowdiness

Following today's Prime Minister's Question Time, Patrick O'Flynn, chief political commentator at the the Daily Express, made an interesting point on Twitter about the Speaker's attempts to deter MPs from booing, heckling and cheering so vigorously (via @oflynnexpress):

"Bercow overdoing the 'calm down' stuff on PMQs. Many of us think ideas must be aggressively scrutinised and don't hate the rumpus."

I don't hate the rumpus either - but for rather more technical reasons that have to with providing incentives for our representatives to pay attention to what each other is saying during parliamentary proceedings.

Rowdiness and the debate about broadcasting parliament
My research into speaker-audience interaction started fairly soon after broadcasts from the House of Commons first began (radio only) in 1975. In the debates leading up to it, I remember being amused and baffled by arguments from the opponents along the lines that it shouldn't be allowed because the rowdy behaviour of MPs would set a bad example to the young.

My interest in audience responses to different forms of public speaking had already reached the point of realising that the central problem for listeners to speeches was that the primary incentive for paying attention in conversation (i.e. the threat that you might have to start speaking any second now) is massively eroded for audiences: once you know that you won't get a chance to speak for the next 10 or 20 minutes, staying awake can become a serious problem

As I've written elsewhere: 'The reason why applause in political speeches seemed a promising place to start was because it provides instant and unambiguous evidence that listeners are (a) awake and paying close attention and (b) approve strongly enough of what’s just been said to show their approval of it (by clapping hands, cheering, etc.).'

Rowdiness as a powerful incentive to pay attention
In Lend Me Your Ears (pp. 32-33), I touched on the issue of negative audience responses as follows:

'.. the apparently rowdy behaviour of British Members of Parliament during debates in the House of Commons may have some rather more positive benefits than its negative public image would suggest. After all, if the odds of being called upon to speak are as poor as one in several hundred, there's so little chance of getting the next turn that you might as well go to sleep. But the tradition of cheering, booing and heckling not only provides an alternative way of expressing a view, it also give members more of a reason to listen. To be effective, booing and cheering require a degree of precision timing that can only be achieved by paying attention closely enough to be able to identify statements worth responding to.'

Rowdiness and democracy
If, like me, you think it's rather a good idea for our representatives to pay close attention to what others are saying in parliamentary exchanges, getting our MP's to 'calm down', as recommended by Mr Speaker Berkow, would be a rather bad idea.

And, if you don't believe me, go and watch some legislative assemblies in other countries where there is no tradition of audience participation. If you do, you'll be as amazed as I've been on quite a number of occasions by what I saw: when one person is speaking, most of the others spend most of their time going through their brief cases, sorting out papers, reading them and generally showing no sign whatsoever of listening to anything said by anyone else.

In the face of such indifference from other members, the speakers themselves typically deliver their speeches with marginally less passion and conviction than a weather broadcaster reading out the latest shipping forecast.

Further reading:
  • Clayman, Steven E. 1992 "Caveat Orator: Audience Disaffiliation in the 1988 Presidential Debates." The Quarterly Journal of Speech 78: 33-60 (Download PDF).


Simon Lancaster said...

Hi Max,

Not sure I agree with you on this.

I think the real motivation behind applause and rowdiness is a desire for social approval. Most people who applaud party conference speeches are neither alert nor approving. In most cases, people simply notice everyone else is clapping and join in.
Likewise, rowdiness in parliament is not designed to win attention - rowdy MPs are far LESS likely to be called by the Speaker - what it does do is demonstrate to fellow MPs that they're part of 'the club.'


Max Atkinson said...

I didn't say (and have never claimed) that rowdiness is 'designed to win attention'. The point is simply that looking for opportunities to boo, heckle and cheer provides an incentive for MPs to pay attention in a setting where there's little scope for the kind of individual turn-taking that keeps us alert in conversation.

I'd argue that such responses are collective equivalents of individual turns at talk that enable interaction to take place between a large number of people on the one hand and one speaker on the other - in much the same way as a congregation takes collective turns with the priest during a church service.

And I agree that such responses also enable members to demonstrate that they're 'part of 'the club' (and which ones are part of which club).

But don't underestimate how rowdiness (like applause in other settings) is far more organized than it looks/sounds at first sight. This was highlighted in an episode of 'Yes Prime Minister' (which I'm now trying to find on YouTube and will post if and when I find it).

While being driven to the H of C, Hacker was listening to 'Yesterday in Parliament' on the car radio. The programme's producers had presumably hired a gang of extras to simulate the booing and heckling during a Commons speech by the PM. But it didn't work and sounded as fake and unreal as canned laughter - the reason being that the actors failed to simulate the extraordinary degree of precision timing that' involved in producing such responses: i.e. random booing and heckling just doesn't work.

For more on the orderly nature of such responses, have a look at the article by Steve Clayman mentioned at the end of the post.

Chris Witt said...

In the US many congressional speeches that are televised are delivered to an empty or almost empty chamber. (The cameras are focused directly on the speaker, so you rarely see that no one is listening.) Giving a speech to an empy hall seems, unfortunately, like an apt metaphor for what political discourse has become lately.