Why the only good reason not to live-broadcast Parliament is flawed

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Processed with VSCO with a4 preset

The only good reason against live-broadcasting Parliament that has so far been anywhere near convincing is that it is not cost effective. The argument goes like this: not enough people are interested in a live broadcast of Parliament. Hence, it is not cost effective to live-broadcast Parliament.

However, this argument is less impressive than it seems. It may make clear sense if Parliament were a profit-making entity, such as Mediacorp, for example. Given that the managers of a profit-making entity have an obligation to maximize profits, it cannot undertake activities that are not cost-effective. Hence, if Parliament was a profit-making entity, and broadcasting Parliament is not cost-effective, it should not be carried out.

However, the driving force behind live-broadcasting Parliament is not that it is profitable, but that it generates transparency and accountability by placing the broadcast fully in public hands. This is because, giving the public immediate access to unedited footage allows the creation of a reliable and easily accessible archive of Parliamentary proceedings. This in turn aids people in fact-checking and scrutiny, which are both essential to healthy public discourse and a healthy democracy.

One might respond in defence that just because transparency and accountability are important does not mean we should spend disproportionately to achieve them. The government is accountable to the people after all, and must not spend money on non cost-effective measures, as this would waste taxpayer dollars.

However, even if we accept this to be the case, the status quo argument is still not entirely convincing. This is because it is unclear that the cost of a live broadcast is really that disproportionate. I will use a comparison with corporate disclosure obligations to show this.

Large public companies are expected to file annual returns and hold minuted annual general meetings. The accounting and administrative costs of these procedures are extremely expensive and can go beyond tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the company. Yet, the only people who would be anywhere near interested in these documents are perhaps potential investors, auditors, (some) shareholders and the managers of the company.

Nonetheless, we continue to demand that companies meet transparency and disclosure obligations, which collectively, costs our economy millions and millions of dollars in spite of the low number of people who would actually read the documents produced (when was the last time you read a company’s financial statement, even your own?).

Why?

First, it is because the few people who do read them matter – auditors, shareholders, directors etc. They make decisions and bring up issues that affect various stakeholders – employees, consumers and suppliers – i.e. the ‘wider public’. They are tasked to scrutinize company affairs and look out for financial misconduct or non-payment of taxes, to protect the interest of the economy as a whole.

The same can be said about Parliamentary proceedings – the members of the public who actually do read, record, scrutinize and archive them matter. They are journalists, politicians, commentators – it is their task to scrutinize them on our behalf. Hence, even if not many Singaporeans watch a live-broadcast of Parliament, many Singaporeans are still affected by their availability, albeit indirectly.

Second, these transparency and disclosure obligations alter companies’ internal behavior. When you know that your accounts, records and minutes will be scrutinized by third parties, you tend to do a better job at holding meetings, making careful decisions and avoid improper conduct, even though you know that only a very small number of people will actually read those documents.

The same can be said of politics – it does not matter that very few people would actually watch a live broadcast of Parliament. It is the mere knowledge that Parliament is broadcast live is sufficient to alter politicians’ behaviour. Even though not many people are watching, some people are – and that is enough to alter their behaviour for the better.

Finally, as a small but relevant point, the not-cost-effective argument appears to apply only to a policy of live-broadcasting all Parliamentary proceedings. There is always the option of only live-broadcasting proceedings of significant public interest, which can be decided through, for example, a poll on Parliament’s website that closes a few days prior to the commencement of proceedings. This would not cost too much in terms of broadcasting expenditure, and yet provides the benefits that come with a live broadcast.

Hence, the arguments against a live-broadcast of Parliament do not appear entirely convincing, and I look forward to a rejoinder from those supporting the status quo.

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Written by Rio Hoe

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