Party political broadcasts: Viewers to politicians: you'll just have to try harder

Party political broadcasts get under people's skin. They are infuriating. I am a political nut, and I hate them - won't watch, stomp off cursing for the five thieved minutes of the evening, and despise the whole business. Most people I've talked to feel just as strongly.

Why should this be? Party broadcasts are often boring, true; but TV and radio are packed with tedium, and we just shrug. There's always that coffee to be made or - wild thought - a book to be picked up. Sometimes the broadcasts are badly made, but so's a lot else. Yes, they are full of tawdry propaganda; but so are the commercial commercials, and some of us have learnt to enjoy them. Isn't it better to be engaged in democratic propaganda than propaganda for the next identical-looking car?

The first problem is the very faint but repulsive whiff of coercion, the sense of Power stomping into one's living-room and boring on. We have come vaguely to accept Fiat and Nissan, Currys and Homebase, as irritating televisual buskers, transparent mendicants; but the Conservative Party, or New Labour, or the Liberal Democrats, are somehow different - bossier and more portentous. They demand that you sit up and listen. I feel the same rush of rebellious irritation that I last felt squirming at the back of 3B when the deputy head was reading Dickens' "Cricket and the Hearth" very slowly. Get on with it. Shut up. Go away.

At the same time, this is clearly at some level unreasonable. The parties and their leaders matter. They ought to get their chance to speak directly to us, without the intervention of the Royal College of Spin, Michael Brunson, Robin Oakley and the rest. If we want to live in a democracy, we have certain duties to perform and listening to our putative leaders is perhaps one.

Yet the broadcasters understand the nation's squirming irritation with the whole business. Yesterday's consultation paper from the BBC, ITC, Radio Authority and S4C suggests ditching the parties' rights to political broadcasts at times of their choosing between elections. The immensely tedious post-Budget broadcasts, redolent of the 1950s and unnecessary after hours of Commons and expert coverage, would also be ditched.

In return, admittedly, there would be more broadcasts to cover the proposed new assembly and local elections. Since this is when voters actually need information, it makes sense.

The document is radical in that the broadcasters themselves, and not the politicians, are grasping the nettle. The politicians, judging by their first reactions, are merely nettled. They shouldn't be.

First, these broadcasts are tiny, weak weapons of political war, swamped in their effect by news and current affairs, and low in impact. Second, the politicians themselves seem unsure quite how to use them; one eloquent little remark in the new document is that ``Many parties felt five minutes was too long'' for their own broadcasts.

Overall, the broadcasters' paper is a long-overdue heckle from the real world. With their stagey music, would-be "frank" interviews with Dear Leaders and Common People, and plonkingly partisan analysis, these five- minute lecture-ettes belong to another age. We are simply too knowing and inquiring to be happy with unadorned party propaganda being squirted into our living rooms, like it or not. (There is always the off switch. But any broadcasting agreement which depends on viewers using that is, by definition, a failure.)

There has been no rethinking of these broadcasts for a quarter of a century but these reforms, if agreed, will themselves look redundant within a few years. The multi-channel revolution means there will no longer be any excuse for insisting that such party broadcasts go out on this, that or the other station. It will become impracticable to get blanket coverage for political propaganda. Will cartoon channels and sports channels be expected to carry this kind of broadcasting?

Of course not. That, at a stroke, slices away the implied coercion that has always tainted PPBs as a form of communication. We haf ways of making you watch. Not now you don't. We are liberated by our channel-hopping thumbs.

Real choice in television changes the terms of political trade entirely. Soon, there will be politics-only channels, and then perhaps Tory-Vision and Labour TV, just as there will be channels for most other minority interests. If the smaller parties make better arguments, and have livelier spokespeople, we'll turn on to them for some fun. In the digital marketplace, there will, I hope, be place for a wider range of views and arguments than conventional news reporting allows.

You could argue that this is a Bad Thing for the common democratic culture, driving us apart, replacing citizens with self-obsessed and narrow consumers, so that one day we'll look back to the days of party political broadcasts, as we remember when the whole family gathered round for Morecombe and Wise. The only trouble is that we didn't watch the Party Political Broadcasts in the first place. John Major explaining Tory policy on Europe isn't a likely candidate for national nostalgia.

Interest in politics won't shrivel with the demise of PPBs. News will continue to be at the heart of broadcasting strategies - because people want it - and the arrival of partisan and specialist political television will energise the democratic culture, not weaken it. Local television should, with luck, have an even more dramatic effect: if we were able to switch on and hear councillors argue about the standards in the secondary school, or the proposed demolition of a nearby shopping street, we'd be likely to be more interested in local politics than we are now.

Television and radio ought to be wonderful, fizzing political media, full of passion and argument. Most of the time, that early promise has failed to materialise; and few of the failures have been as dismal as PPBs. Rather than clinging on to their right to an occasional tedious harangue, the parties should agree with the broadcasters, throw away these failed five-minuteses and start thinking seriously about how to win friends and viewers in the much more interesting and challenging digital tomorrow.