Fact with a side order of fiction

Forget dry old documentaries. The BBC has found a new way of tackling serious issues. Sean O'Grady discovers how current affairs are set to change along with political programmes
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The Independent Online

Within the next week or so, the BBC will announce the biggest shake-up of its political programming in decades. The review of the corporation's political output is being conducted by Sian Kevill, a former editor of Newsnight and On The Record, and was prompted by what the BBC regarded as disappointing viewing figures during the general election, and a sharp loss of interest in politics among younger viewers. Whether the serious-minded Kevill has been issued with one of Director-General Greg Dyke's special yellow cards, complete with the Alan Partridge-ish inscription "cut the crap – make it happen", remains unclear, but she has certainly been charged with cutting the boring stuff out.

Sian Kevill is on the record, if you'll pardon the expression, as saying that there is a "generational split" in attitudes to the corporation's coverage. "Broadly, under-45s are much more disengaged from politics, and it is not just boredom with party political coverage, but something more systemic... The younger generation is disengaged, especially with politics as Westminster coverage," she says.

Her review will almost certainly mean the end of On The Record and the late-night political roundup Dispatch Box. Live coverage of the party conferences will be switched to BBC News 24 or the BBC' s Parliament channel. Anne Tyerman, the head of political documentaries – mostly bio-pics of retired grandees – has already left the corporation. Most shamefully of all, Panorama has been shunted into a late-night slot on Sundays.

It certainly looks as though Greg Dyke is continuing his progressive dismantling of John Birt's legacy with a fairly determined attack on what little remains of the intellectually uncompromising "Birtist" approach to current affairs. No one talks much about the "mission to explain" these days in White City or Millbank.

What figures such as Peter Horrocks, the head of current affairs, do talk about is "experimentation" and an "ideas process". He says that the BBC "has to take risks" when its audience for news and current affairs programmes has dropped by 30 per cent among the under 45s in seven years. He cites the success of the recent drama-documentary fusion Smallpox 2002: Secret Weapon as an example of how borrowing from other genres can make a story real and, crucially, deliver the same information, or more, than a traditional "talking heads" type of documentary. In any case, he was more than satisfied with the show's 3.3 million audience, many of whom stayed with the channel for the Newsnight discussion afterwards. He feels that such novel treatments are the way forward, and is also excited about the return of satire to the BBC television.

Having left the field to Channel 4's Rory Bremner and Radio 4's Dead Ringers, Horrocks is now making a new programme for BBC Choice that will be a "topical news show with satirical elements", designed to bring politics to a younger audience. He also believes that current affairs can learn from the history boom – "the new gardening", as Jane Root, controller of BBC2, calls it. The viewing figures for David Starkey's series on Elizabeth I or Conspiracy, the recent reconstruction of the Wannsee Conference on the "Final Solution", demonstrate, so Horrocks believes, how "powerful emotional experience" can be exploited to make even the most "dry" of topics into good television. Fine, but a glance at the long list of credits for each programme confirms this was a very expensive exercise, and even the BBC won't be able to do this sort of thing very often.

Another experiment will be on our screens on Wednesday 20 February – a whole day's programming devoted to the NHS, presented by Nicky Campbell and Fiona Bruce. Horrocks is proud that "NHS Day" represents the most significant commitment to a single issue by the BBC for many years, and seems unapologetic about the elements of populism in the approach: observational footage of the working of the NHS and a drama-doc will be melded with a "Heroes of the NHS" award and Nicky Campbell urging the nation, Pop Idol style, to vote in a telephone poll to determine our top five national priorities in health care. Maybe they'll call that bit "Op Idol".

Indeed, if some fresh research conducted by the University of Stirling for the Economic and Social Research Council is to be believed, then Nicky Campbell could become an even more frequent sight on our screens. Dr Brian McNair, who led the research says: "Our findings demonstrate that people are more interested in politics than the pessimists would have us believe, but that the way they interact with and hope to influence the political process is changing. The public has recognised that political discussion programmes - from the BBC's Question Time to Nicky Campbell's Five Live show – provide them with real opportunities to engage politicians in head-to-head debate away from the protection of spin doctors and the political machinery that protects them from public scrutiny. The fact that they are the only such opportunities adds to their potency."

The fairly obvious danger in all this is that the new portfolio of programmes will prove too superficial for the over-45s and still fail to attract the young and the bored, so that audiences might fall even further. Whatever success Janet Street-Porter might once have had with "yoof TV", the BBC's archives are littered with failed "popular" current affairs shows.

In abandoning the forensic long political interview, the BBC will also be reneging on an important part of its public service obligations. Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has urged the BBC not to "dumb down" its coverage. She said recently: "Just because people say they are turning away from politics, that is not a reason for the BBC to stop covering politics. The job of the BBC is to find new ways of engaging the public in democratic debate." Perhaps Nicky Campbell should interview her about the BBC's plans. It would be what Peter Horrocks would call an "interesting experiment".

The writer was a researcher on the BBC's 'On The Record'