MPs may be vain, but we still have to listen to what they say

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The Independent Online
GERALD Kaufman brings a certain sulphurous style to the art of BBC-bashing. Telling Will Wyatt and Matthew Bannister, two of the BBC's most senior managers, at yesterday's session of his Culture Select Committee that he could not bear to talk about Radio 3 because he found the subject "too depressing", he nevertheless permitted himself to ask them acidly if they could order their announcers at least to pronounce the names of composers and their works correctly. But then it was Radio 4 rather than Radio 3 which was making him particularly angry yesterday. With a menacing reference to the fact that the House of Commons is ultimately responsible for the BBC's funding, he demanded that the corporation undertake not to change its planned rescheduling of Radio 4 parliamentary programmes until the select committee had produced its next report - which the BBC chairman Sir Christopher Bland yesterday promptly and resolutely wrote to Kaufman refusing to do.

Stylish yes. But is this any more than a wearyingly familiar bleat from MPs about the lack of interest they arouse in the rest of us? The main focus of what now looks like a good old fashioned showdown between Mr Kaufman and the BBC chairman is the decision by the Radio 4 controller James Boyle to move, as part of other changes, Yesterday In Parliament from Radio 4 FM to long wave. When Today in Parliament, the equivalent late-night programme of extracts from the Commons and Lords was confined to what Kaufman yesterday described as the "ghetto of long wave", the audience fell by more than half. It's therefore safe to assume that something equivalent will happen to the morning programme. And if there's one thing politicians don't like, its having their exposure reduced. But if Mr Boyle thinks he can expand the overall Radio 4 audience by taking Yesterday in Parliament off its prime channel - and he does - then why shouldn't he? In fact the changes mean a net increase in annual political and parliamentary programming of 55 hours for those who want to seek it out. Yesterday in Parliament will actually run for longer in its new slot. MPs like Kaufman may complain that Yesterday in Parliament is being ghettoised. But why on earth should the rest of us care?

Well, first the argument goes to the heart of the changes Mr Boyle is trying to make to Radio 4. (As an occasional presenter of Week in Westminster, a programme variously said to attract audiences of between 500,000 and 700,000 and which is moving from a relatively high ratings slot on Saturday mornings for similar reasons, I should declare a vested interest.) The select committee was told yesterday that while the audience drops by around 300,000 for Yesterday in Parliament, it remains high - at around 1.3 million, to be precise. What it wasn't told is that when it is off the air, for example on Monday mornings or during the parliamentary recess, substitutes in the slot - say Just William or Alan Clark's Diaries - there is no significant increase in the audience from that of the parliamentary programme. Now that doesn't alter the fact that Mr Boyle believes that there is a potential audience which is bigger than the 1.3 million who would join Radio 4 if - say - a relaxed discussion programme more akin to what frequently comes after 9am was taking place, instead of Yesterday in Parliament. His big gamble is that that by removing the latter he can increase the morning Radio 4 audience. It's a legitimate goal of public service broadcasting to try to maximise that audience. After all those who are listening to other programmes in the morning are licence payers too. (It's fairly well known, nevertheless, within the BBC that there was disagreement between two directorates - Mr Boyle's empire of Radio 4 and that of BBC News - over the Yesterday in Parliament change. Reportedly Boyle wanted to scrap Yesterday in Parliament altogether.)

But that isn't the only issue. Mr Bannister yesterday compared Yesterday in Parliament to Test cricket and said that if people wanted to listen to the show they would find it. He also said that the size of the audience was partly the result of the "inheritance factor" from the Today programme. The point is what importance you attach to maximising the audience for the reporting of Parliament.

It's a commonplace that all the broadsheet newspapers have over the past 20 years - because of relentless competitive pressures - run down their regular straight verbatim reports of the Commons and Lords. Indeed, The Independent was the last to do so. It's also true that Hansard costs pounds 5 and is therefore beyond the reach of all but most fanatically interested. It's odd that there is probably now less direct reporting of parliament for the mass audience than there has been at any time in the 150 years since journalists fought for the right of access to it. Now the 1.3 million who listen to Today in Parliament may not go looking for it, as Mr Bannister believes they should. But they don't switch it off either. Indeed the latest research done for BBC News shows they feel rather positively about it. The danger is that if it is switched to long wave it will be only listened to, in the main, by nerds and misfits like political journalists and politicians.

MPs would be in a stronger position if they themselves turned up for more of the debates they want reported. It also may be that rather less of politics and politicians in mainstream news programmes would be good for us (and them). But raw reporting of Parliament is about more than MPs' overinflated egos. And because there's less of it, the size of audience that Yesterday in Parliament attracts matters more than it used to. By reporting Parliament less we make it matter less. And that's bad for democracy.