A week in Westminster is a long time

Lord Reith wanted a programme to teach women about politics. Has it outlived its usefulness?

"DEAR VISCOUNTESS Astor," wrote Miss Hilda Matheson of the BBC, "we are plunging into a new experiment this autumn by having a woman MP to give a simple explanatory talk on the week in Parliament every Wednesday morning at 10.45 - the time we find most busy working women can listen best, when they have their cup of tea."

"DEAR VISCOUNTESS Astor," wrote Miss Hilda Matheson of the BBC, "we are plunging into a new experiment this autumn by having a woman MP to give a simple explanatory talk on the week in Parliament every Wednesday morning at 10.45 - the time we find most busy working women can listen best, when they have their cup of tea."

Would Lady Astor contribute to the new venture? asked Miss Matheson, adding that she hoped this wouldn't conflict "with your going to Switzerland or something".

It turned out that Nancy Astor MP did have plans to "go abroad", but, nonetheless, could find the time to do some broadcasts.

This was 1929, and one of the first ever Week in Westminster programmes - then being broadcast under the title The Week in Parliament . This coming Saturday the programme, which holds the title of the world's longest-running radio show, celebrates its 70th anniversary.

In its early days the programme was given the remit of explaining politics to women. A team of women MPs including Oswald Mosley's wife, Lady Cynthia Mosley, and Megan Lloyd George, the daughter of David, took turns to deliver "talks" giving a glimpse behind the scenes at Westminster.

It was just a year or so after the voting age for women had been lowered from 30 to 21, putting them on equal terms with men. The BBC took the view that women had less time than men to read newspapers, and so efforts should be made to fill the gap in their knowledge.

Lord Reith was a keen supporter of the project, in the face of opposition from politicians who were suspicious of the new medium of radio, which could so easily be used to stir up political controversy. The director general defended it thus: "It is chiefly for the benefit of housewives but covering also a large mixed audience of shift-workers, unemployed, invalids, etcetera."

The programme's long history lies behind the recent shenanigans at The Week in Westminster which resulted in Boris Johnson, one of its liveliest and funniest presenters, being sacked by James Boyle for being too plummy - or, as Radio 4 puts it, "not having the right tone".

The fuss began more than a year ago when Mr Boyle moved the programme from Saturday mornings, where it had been since the Thirties, to a graveyard slot late on Thursday night. The audience dropped instantly from about a quarter of a million to 100,000 or so - and the programme suffered from the fact that it was made well before Parliament rose on a Friday. The Week in Westminster became, inevitably, A Bit of the Week in Westminster .

At the same time, Today in Parliament and Yesterday in Parliament were banished to long wave, in a bid to make Radio 4 altogether "more accessible" and to bring in new audiences who, according to the focus groups, did not have much of an interest in politics.

Betty Boothroyd, Speaker of the House, got cross. So did 100 MPs who signed a petition to restore the parliamentary programming to its prime-time slots.

The Week in Westminster was perhaps the only programme left in British broadcasting in which backbenchers got to discuss matters that came up in Parliament but were not making the headlines - and they felt the BBC was failing in its public service remit by removing the warp and weft of politics from the fabric of the schedules.

Backbenchers also suspected that Labour Party managers were pleased by the move, since it left the highly managed soundbite politics, delivered by a small bunch of familiar faces, in the news programmes and also reduced immeasurably the air time given to maverick backbenchers.

Tony Benn and Enoch Powell had both presented The Week in Westminster - it had a tradition of favouring such characters over loyalists on the front bench.

Radio 4's decision was also seen as suiting only those at the top of the Labour Party. There was also a fair amount of protest from listeners, and the governors of the BBC decided to conduct a review of parliamentary programming. Normally, they do not get involved in programming issues - but this was a Charter matter.

The matter came to a head in the summer when the governors pronounced, and Mr Boyle was forced to restore The Week in Westminster to Saturday mornings, and Today and Yesterday in Parliament to FM slots.

The diktat entirely messed up his plans for Saturday mornings - when subjects were expected to be lighter and more personal. The "cosy with an edge" feel being delivered by John Peel on Home Truths was just what Mr Boyle had in mind; politics was not.

But, say its supporters, the programme, now that it is back on Saturday mornings, has a chance of finding ways to take forward and build on a rich history.

Speaker of the House Betty Boothroyd will give a rare interview on the 70th anniversary programme - which may also remind listeners that former producers include the spy Guy Burgess, and that Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's chief spin doctor, was a particularly good presenter of the programme.

The writer was editor of 'The Week in Westminster' from 1995-97

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