Leading Article: BBC risks contempt of Parliament

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The Independent Online
IT'S TIME to put the brakes on James Boyle. Mr Boyle, controller of BBC Radio 4, apparently thinks Yesterday in Parliament is "boring" and should instantly be shunted off to the long-wave frequency. This is one of a series of changes in parliamentary and political programming, which also includes moving the half hour Week in Westminster from Saturday morning to a graveyard slot on Thursday evening, when only the most devoted politics junkies are likely to tune in.

The first problem with this strategy - which has greatly upset MPs - is that it is not borne out by the facts. Yesterday in Parliament attracts an audience of 1.3 million, while according to a BBC spokesman The Week in Westminster is listened to by 658,000 people on a Saturday morning. Will Wyatt, chief executive of BBC Broadcasting, and Matthew Bannister, managing director of BBC Radio Network, irritated MPs on Thursday by being unable to give figures for the drop when the late night Today in Parliament went to long wave from FM. The audience more than halved, to around 160,000. And research carried out by the rival BBC News Directorate showed that listeners feel very warmly about both Yesterday in Parliament and The Week in Westminster. Which is not surprising. Both programmes, have an appeal which makes casual listeners stay with them once they have happened upon them.

The BBC has mishandled these changes, and not only by failing to convince MPs. It's far from certain that Mr Boyle would attract a bigger audience by getting rid of the parliamentary programmes he regards as being in the way. But whether he would or not, the BBC has a public service remit. In an age of spin and pre-packaged political announcements, Parliament remains the one theatre in which the executive is publicly and daily called to account, however imperfectly. The point of these programmes is that they are enjoyed by a surprisingly sizeable audience - more than half of whom would not hunt for them on another channel but enjoy them if they don't have to. If covering Parliament with programming that holds its listeners isn't part of the BBC's remit, it's difficult to see what is.