What's so boring about Westminster?
On the Record could be the first casualty in a major overhaul of political programming at the BBC. Why, asks Donald Macintyre, are broadcasters so wary of covering parliamentary politics?
Tuesday 02 July 2002
Probably the most memorable television interview of Tony Blair's first term was the one conducted with him on On the Record by John Humphrys at the height of the Bernie Ecclestone saga. Probing and well prepared, it treated the viewers as grown-ups, leaving them to make up their own mind about how influential Ecclestone's £1m donation to the Labour Party had been on the Government's decision to reject a tobacco- advertising ban for Formula One.
So it's especially depressing that both the programme and John Humphrys' role as a regular Sunday lunchtime BBC TV interviewer look like being no more. Later this month, the governors of the BBC will discuss plans that, if approved, will have far-reaching implications for political programming. One proposal is to replace the nightly Despatch Box – the Parliament-oriented magazine programme – with a single half-hour programme, probably also late night, summing up the parliamentary week. Another, more important still, is to axe the BBC's flagship Sunday programme, watched by up to one and a half million viewers, in favour of a new show that will reduce overall Sunday political output on both BBC channels from 90 minutes to 60.
The move is already making waves. David Davis, the Conservative Party chairman, is seeking an urgent meeting with Gavyn Davies, the BBC chairman, to protest against a move that he says would be a "failure of scrutiny of the executive and of the BBC's duty to fulfil its public-service remit".
But it would be a mistake to think that Davis and his Tory colleagues are alone in being concerned by the cast of mind illustrated by the plans. They raise serious questions about the BBC's role in the democratic process.
True, part of the change is to incorporate a technically necessary switch of the BBC's regional political programmes from BBC 2 to BBC 1. But that doesn't explain why they now have to form a segment of the planned new BBC 1 programme on Sundays, cutting the network output from an hour to 40 minutes. Although some form of interview will continue, Humphrys has made it clear he won't participate if On the Record is no more. I have criticised Humphrys' hectoring on radio in the past. But nobody doubts that he is a first-rate interviewer, not least on OTR.
At the heart of the changes is an idea that "Westminster politics" is somehow boring and that a high proportion of OTR's viewers are over 50. Never mind that that reflects a greater tendency to vote among older people and that today's younger viewers will be tomorrow's older ones. Or that OTR frequently helps to set the political agenda for the week ahead. The fact is that "Westminster" is really a lazy derogatory term for national politics. The implication that less bias towards Westminster politics would attract larger audiences is as suspect as it is drearily familiar, as Radio 4's recent experience suggests. "Boring" Yesterday in Parliament was moved to AM from FM to make the Today programme even longer. But Today in Parliament, the late-night equivalent, recently recorded its highest-ever audience. And Week in Westminster was moved to a graveyard slot on Thursday evenings on the assumption that its absence would increase the audience on Saturday mornings. It didn't – and back on Saturdays, it is producing record audiences of over one million.
But that leaves aside a much more profound point: "Westminster politics" happens to be the system of representative democracy we have in this country. Some in the BBC may not like the fact. But there's precious little, short of a revolution, they can do about it – except, as public-service broadcasters, cover it properly. The idea that devolution changes all that is the worst kind of special pleading. Even in Scotland – where the parliament does actually have powers – social security, defence, foreign affairs, and taxation are settled by Westminster. So, even if OTR was obsessed by Parliament, which it isn't, there would be a strong case for maintaining its present output.
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