From our own 500 correspondents

Does John Birt's BBC really need so many political staff? The licence-fee payer should be told, says David Walker
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It's a case of elephantiasis that only shows once a year, at party conference time. This week the BBC has more than 400 staff at the Labour Party conference in Blackpool, and more than 500 converging on Bournemouth for the Conservative conference next week.

Even if the BBC offered wall-to-wall coverage (live coverage of the conferences is confined to a couple of hours morning and afternoon over four days), even if we generously allowed that some of that legion of accreditations were executives in suits down to the seaside to do a bit of glad-handing, that would be far too many.

When the Director-General's celebrated drinks party at the conference is costed, together with trains, hotels and meals, the licence fee-supported BBC will be unlikely to get much change from pounds 1m, and that's excluding telephone and cable and salary costs. And the same again next week at the Tory conference.

The BBC says it can't give a total of those who "do politics"; nor does it have figures for the total of "political" output.

The political hordes are only dimly seen the rest of the year, because there is a tacit agreement to keep it that way between MPs, the BBC and the newspaper lobby correspondents (some of whom get nice little earners from regular BBC interviews).

The BBC has built a political empire, with many of its troops cosseted in lavish studios and offices on Millbank, opposite the Houses of Parliament. Others are garrisoned in Broadcasting House, Bush House and Television Centre. They are there to serve the public, enriching our democracy by reporting the derring-do of parties and Parliament. Instead, there is a good case that the massive scale of BBC coverage merely diminishes the public interest in politics.

Under BBC Westminster's empire-builder-in-chief, Samir Shah, 110 full- time journalists cover Parliament, overseen by 40 managers and assistants, with all the studio managers, engineers and technical staff to be counted on top. If Robin Oakley, the BBC's political editor, were to fall under one of the racehorses he writes about each week for The Spectator, at least 11 further BBC lobby correspondents could step in.

Tony Blair's press secretary, Alastair Campbell, stopped there in his recent complaint about how oppressive this weight of numbers can feel day to day. His sums need adding to. The several scores of people actually producing live official coverage of the Commons and Lords are separate and extra. There is the World Service - two dedicated British domestic political reporters, plus producers and reporters from various of the foreign language services who seem to think their audiences need on-the- spot coverage from party conferences.

But a full accounting of the BBC's political commitment needs to take in many of the rest of BBC News and Current Affairs' 1,100 journalists (plus at least 150 freelances and part-timers, plus at least 750 studio managers and technical staff doing news-related work, plus 600 managers and assistants). How many of them are also politicking?

Radio 4's Today, The World at One and the other "sequence" programmes on radio each have several staff working almost full-time telephoning ministers and their shadows and, when they will not bite, also-ran MPs. Then there are the (dozen) political specialists employed by the BBC's English regions, plus another political apparatus for both Wales and Scotland. Producers and reporters from local radio stations regularly arrive at Millbank to claim "their" slice of the parliamentary pie.

On top of this small army, there is the BBC Chief Political Adviser. Then there are the weekly programmes dipping in and out of politics to different degrees, such as Panorama, whose edition last night on spin doctoring inspired Mr Campbell to uncork his popgun on BBC staff numbers.

Officially, "political programmes"amount to only 505 hours of radio and television output a year. But in fact, politics makes up a huge fraction of weekly programmes, including Question Time, On The Record, and news bulletins. "Politics is cheap," said one executive, not sardonically. But still the question hangs there: why so many?

The official answer - they are needed to supply the 11,000 hours of radio and television news and current affairs output - won't do. It is necessary instead to understand the BBC's unique system of internal competition.

Radio Five Live wants a different sound from the piece that you hear on the news summary on Radio 2. The PM programme on Radio 4 at five in the afternoon wants a different and fresher "angle" than The World at One, and so on, through to the Nine O'Clock News and Newsnight. This merry-go-round creates a "feeding frenzy" and a desperate desire for novelty. No one stops to ask just how much Westminster coverage the nation needs.

The BBC's real problem is a fixation on party politics to the exclusion of matters of power and policy. Mr Shah has been encouraged to expand and 500 people attend party conferences because those in control of its output demand yet more Westminster politics. And that reflects the iron in the BBC's soul: because it is, albeit at one remove, an organ of state, it is political from top to toe.

Let me here declare a personal interest, somewhat more serious than the fact that I, like Alastair Campbell, was recently treated to a BBC promenade concert and dinner afterwards. For two unhappy years I was the BBC's Urban Affairs Correspondent, the principal part of which brief was covering a different kind of politics, to do with local authorities, quangos, the politics of policy and spending. Did the editors of Today or the Nine O'Clock News want such stuff? Only to a very limited extent. Despite all the evidence that formal politics puts people off, the BBC churns it out.

Under John Birt, BBC News and Current Affairs has grown massively - by 9 per cent over the year to 1995-96. At the same time, public discontent with formal politics has grown apace. Tony Hall, chief executive of BBC News, admits that younger viewers and listeners are switching off in droves. The more people see and hear of their elected representatives, the less they seem to like. Could there possibly be some relationship between the two?