Politicians have only themselves to blame if the public switch off

'It is the politicians' evasions that are responsible for the dumbing-down of politics'
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The Independent Online

So the politicians, especially Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, are worried that the BBC is considering "dumbing down" its coverage of politics. But few – apart from political junkies such as me – would necessarily blame Greg Dyke, the director general, for looking at new ways of making politics less boring to viewers. The fact is that apathy, reflected at the low turnout in elections, is also mirrored in the turn-off that politics has become for many viewers and listeners.

Before the politicians get too high and mighty they should momentarily spare a thought for Mr Dyke as he wonders why so few "normal" people – especially the young – actually watch his excellent programmes on politics. Don't get me wrong, I am not against the desire to maintain the interest of the viewer in politics, and I think that any attempt to reduce the output of political coverage would be a mistake. In fact, more than that, I also have a financial interest to declare. I am privileged to take part in many political programmes broadcast by the corporation and I would suffer, financially, as a consequence.

I find it ironic, however, that I have the opportunity of participating far more these days on radio and television than I ever did as an MP. Maybe that should tell us something. It could be that, tied to a whip, a pager and a political script, I had nothing useful to say. Now that I have to use my brain instead of my pager, perhaps I might appear more interesting.

At present, the BBC provides extensive coverage of politics and the proceedings of the House of Commons. I do not think there has ever been a time when there has been so much coverage. Just consider an average Sunday. On television it starts with Breakfast with Frost, and this is followed at lunchtime by On the Record. Meanwhile, Radio 4 provides Broadcasting House in the morning and The Westminster Hour in the evening. Meanwhile, Radio 5 Live offers us Sunday Service.

That adds up to five hours of in-depth and extensive political coverage – excluding Radio 4's lunchtime news show, The World This Weekend. For a day on which many are seeking a rest from political debate I reckon, if anything, the BBC is actually going well beyond its call of public duty.

During the week, in addition to the regular news and current affairs programmes such as Newsnight and Today, there are other round-ups of events in Parliament. Dispatch Box, on BBC 2, was added to the political stable of the corporation four years ago and provides a 30-minute nightly magazine round-up and also includes robust live studio discussion. Admittedly, this programme is for insomniacs because it goes out after midnight – but then, since Parliament does not adjourn until 10.30pm, it is hardly possible to put out such a programme much earlier.

And then there are the two, hour-long, Westminster Live programmes put out on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, which cover Question Time in the Commons and much more. Add Radio 4's Yesterday in Parliament and Today in Parliament plus Saturday's Week in Westminster, and this all points to a pretty impressive coverage for what is, in large measure, just a minority pursuit.

If anything, it can be argued, with some justification, that the BBC's output has actually increased in recent years. So no politician can claim that there has been any dumbing-down yet.

However, Greg Dyke has a right to ask whether his viewers are actually watching or listening to any of these programmes. There are some (I am one) that say that he has a duty to provide programmes on political affairs regardless of how many are tuning in. But he, in turn, is entitled to ask why so few licence-payers are thanking him for such coverage. Could it be because it is the politicians themselves, rather than the broadcasters, who are dumbing down?

Parliament has only itself to blame if its proceedings are such a turn-off. And if some of the programmes go out at an inconvenient time, could this not be because of the inconvenient hours that the Commons currently sits? The trouble is that politicians rarely watch or listen to television or radio and maybe are simply unaware of just how unappetising they appear to the rest of us.

One can hardly blame the BBC for wanting to get away from simply covering the proceedings of a largely empty Commons chamber where there are often only a dozen or so MPs present. The only significant thing that registers in the minds of some viewers is the backcloth of empty green benches. Perhaps if MPs attended the debates in larger numbers, there might be more of an incentive to want to watch. Ironically, it has been the provision of the live TV "feed" to MPs in their swanky offices that has been one of the reasons for the decline in attendance.

Then there are the cringe-making Labour stooges who ask their idiotic scripted questions along the lines of: "Is the Prime Minister aware that he is marvellous?" This week the Speaker ruled that the Leader of the Opposition could not ask the Prime Minister questions about the Labour Party and its funding by trade unions – implying that Mr Blair, as Prime Minister, was not responsible for the Labour Party. This is bizarre. Presumably, this strict interpretation means that Parliament cannot now even question ministers on the leaked Labour Party health policy document that suggests that the NHS might, in future, be less than free at point of use.

The attempts to stifle open debate in the Commons mean that, for the rest of us, the impression is reinforced that Parliament is a place where questions in debates simply go unanswered. And when, anyway, so many of the broadcasters are then confronted with the refusal of ministers to appear on programmes, who can blame Mr Dyke for wondering if the manner of political coverage should not be reviewed?

How many times do we hear interviewers saying "We invited a minister to appear but none were available"? In such circumstances it is the politicians' evasions that are responsible for the dumbing-down of their trade. It would be sad if politics were to lose the attention of the BBC, but it is up to the politicians, not Mr Dyke, to make their case as to why the many should be forced to watch what is of interest only to the few.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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