So what if politics isn't sexy?

The BBC is right to give parties huge coverage, says Samir Shah
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The Independent Online
Is there too much political coverage on television and radio? Many think so. And the finger of guilt points most accusingly at the BBC. The view of David Walker, in The Independent last week, and other commentators, seems to be that the hot-house of Westminster and its self-referential denizens should be left to rot in their own square mile and be stopped from boring the pants off the watching and listening millions.

Underpinning this conclusion is the idea that politicians are a venal lot, conforming increasingly to Disraeli's description of a politician's career as one of "plundering and blundering"; that not only is there too much politics broadcast but that what we see and hear is arcane and of interest only to those who belong to the Westminster club; so why bother to report their comings and goings so much?

There is some truth in all of this. The reaction of some of our competitors has been to throw in the towel - restrict coverage to the absolute minimum and fill the space with more "human interest" journalism - a euphemism for a diet of stories about sex, crime and foreign violence.

The BBC, though, is playing a bigger game. Our covenant with the British people, founded on the licence fee, is that we shall not take the easy route. We will continue to strike out on our own: distinctive, different and committed not only to entertain but to inform and educate, too.

This means a commitment to democracy and public accountability. Whatever we may think of our politicians, they wield real power over us - determining how much of the money we earn we can keep; the kind of schools we send our children to; the level of treatment we get in our hospitals. Global forces may well signal the end of the nation state and its politicians but, right now, politicians matter. They can do to us what Philip Larkin ascribed to our mothers and fathers. As a result, it is our duty to report and analyse what they say and do.

But do we need quite so much politics on air? The point is that we have different programmes of different channels, each tailored to suit the needs of particular audiences and their tastes. To those jaded by the sheer volume of what we do, I would echo the words of Tom Paine: "Those who expect to reap the blessing of freedom must undergo the fatigue of supporting it."

There is some truth in the criticisms of our political coverage. But the annual cry over numbers at party conferences is inaccurate and often mischievous. The total number of more than 400 being bandied about is a spurious one: artificially bumped up by counting technical staff who are needed to rig and de-rig the equipment; and by adding together all the journalists accredited, many of whom are there for only short periods. The result is that actual numbers on any given day are less than half the grand total. However, it's clear that new technology and new ways of working will enable us to cut down on numbers.

The charge that we are too concerned with the Westminster hot-house and that our discourse is too recondite also has some merit. We have garnered information from focus groups of "ordinary people" to help improve our understanding of the problem. Language is a key factor. But here there are real difficulties: many people did not understand the meaning of commonly used words, such as Chief Whip. In a world of sleaze and scandal, such a job title might be vulnerable to serious misinterpretation.

But what practical steps can we take to address the language problem? Constant definitions in the middle of a news package would soon irritate many viewers and listeners. And yet it is a problem that requires urgent solution.

Another common criticism is that "politics is boring". I suspect that people are not uninterested in politics but are tired of the idiom within which it is so often discussed: the ritualistic hostilities, the lack of connection to their daily lives; the pre-occupation with the messengers rather than the messages; the soundbite culture. These are real problems and not that easy to solve.

Making better the connection between what happens in Westminster and people's lives will help to make our coverage more relevant and watchable. Equally, we need to examine whether we spend too much of our time and money addressing the same groups of people.

For example, we are pretty good at reaching certain groups (predictably the better-off, older, middle classes) and less good with other groups, for example, (equally predictably), young people. Now, it may be that young people are simply not interested in politics. But millions of 18- to 25-year-olds will be voting for the first time in the general election and their day- to-day lives will be transformed by whichever party wins power. It is our duty to try to reach them. It cannot be right simply to say they are not interested and leave them to their soaps, music shows and late-night comedies. We need to experiment and innovate to find ways of making politics accessible to more people.

The BBC plays a key role in defining what it means to live in a democracy. Under fire for what, how and the volume of our coverage, we shall not throw in the towel as others have done. We may well adjust the balance of how much we do for different groups of viewers and listeners to reach as wide an audience as possible, but we shall continue to analyse the forces that are shaping their lives. And to give people the information to exercise their democratic right to change things.

The writer is head of political programmes, BBC.