Leading Article: The Broadcasters say politicians on television are bor ing. They're quite right

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The Independent Online
What a performance, what a lawyer, what a woman. Politics on television not fun, not gripping entertainment after Hillary Clinton's appearance yesterday? But that is over there. Over here, it is pretty much political business as usual on the box, which, says the BBC, is causing it to haemorrhage viewers. Once the state broadcaster thought it had a duty to bore for Britain by deferring to Parliament, giving Secretaries of State the run of its studios. Even in this Paxmanite age, the BBC and to a lesser extent ITN probably still do too much formal party-political coverage, second- rate stuff justified neither by its intrinsic interest nor the liveliness of the material. That, we fear, includes a large amount of what happens on the floor of an unreformed, out-of-touch Commons.

But now the BBC is asking questions. The acid test is audience appreciation, because if viewers don't like what they are served they will exercise their zapping option. According to the research, they profess themselves ignorant of the archaic terminology of the Commons and indifferent to much of the talking-head interviewing they are offered. They tend to be bemused at what they feel to be the irrelevance of the political conversation to their daily lives.

One response - which the BBC in masochistic mood is tempted by - is that it is the broadcasters' fault for not making politics interesting enough. The BBC has been berating itself, asking whether its political stories can be repackaged to bring in "real lives" or whether it should introduce commentators from charities and other organisations who are not obviously partisan. And yes, of course, broadcast journalists, like their colleagues in print, should permanently be looking for better ways of presenting material. That is commercial logic.

But the fundamental problem is not the broadcasters' - it is the politicians'. If it turns out that very few people could name the Secretary of State for, say, Defence, the reason is not that he has been roughed up on Newsnight or (as he might claim) ignored by The World at One. It is more likely that the incumbent of this important job (yes, you at the back? George Robertson, well done) has failed to engross the country in what he is about - in his case, a major review of what the defence of the realm will entail in the technological and international conditions of the early 21st century.

So, pursuing this line, why hasn't he? The reasons are systemic and personal. The culture of the Ministry of Defence, and the Foreign Office, still prefers private discussion to messier and noisier forms of public debate. Interest groups, notably the Armed Forces, are too readily deferred to, and lines of discussion blocked off. Mr Robertson, an able politician in conventional terms, has not in office proved able to raise his game and fire the public's imagination and interest.

Others, too, simply fail to engage, inform and entertain. We now have a class of politician in Britain which has been too well-schooled in Mandelsonian media management. In Opposition they felt they needed to play a straight bat, stick to the message. What they have failed to see is that, in office, the game has to change. People want to be inspired, provoked and, yes, entertained by their representatives.

There is no good evidence that the reservoir of public interest in politics is any less than it was. But we do need to be cajoled, challenged and surprised by MPs (isn't it strange how strange that idea seems). Across the range of programmes, we are used to professional talkers, entertainers and propagandists. Beside them, politicians seem stumbling amateur communicators. We slump in front of arcane rituals in unreformed legislative chambers. We hear, without really hearing, the same stilted lines. We are treated to official spokespeople with as much charisma as the proverbial I-speak- your-weight machine.

But what we hardly ever experience is a spirited and honest riposte, a disarming piece of wit, an ingratiating defence, an invitation to accompany the decision-maker down the hard road of balancing competing interests. Instead, what we too often witness is terror of argument and intolerance of dissent. Labour support in the Commons has been lobotomised. In order to ginger up discussion broadcasters favour those prepared to say anything interesting - and that quest takes them to the party fringes and the extremes.

All politicians are now cunning about the media. They know the grammar of television and the foibles of interviewers. But they have become too good at second-guessing, too cunning - so much so that they cannot actually communicate effectively, so focused are they on the medium itself. The salvation of public debate in Britain is not up to the broadcasters. It lies firmly in the hands of the politicians themselves. If they don't wake up to how boring they are then one day we'll start saying democracy is dull too.