At the start of this Millennium I was responsible for political research at BBC News and sat on the Corporation’s Editorial Board. In one of my first meetings we had to decide whether the BBC could justify providing full, live coverage of the TUC conference. On one side, viewing figures were not great and sending the full BBC posse for a week at the seaside was not cheap. On the other, we had to consider the BBC’s role as a public service broadcaster and its responsibility to provide the nation with access to the full range of political debate.
Budgets were under pressure and the cost argument won. Full, live coverage was cut and replaced by a ‘Match of the Day’-style highlights package aired after Newsnight (we talked of ‘salami slicing’ even in those days). Since that time, if you were being kind, you might say that the BBC television’s coverage of politics has been in a state of constant evolution. Being more honest, you could reasonably describe it as being on the retreat. For example, live coverage of party conferences has gone much the same way as coverage of the TUC, not just because of cost, but because audience share was being lost to Homes Under the Hammer, Countdown, Deal or No Deal and the like.
I reflected on this as the BBC announced it was axing The Daily Politics and The Sunday Politics a couple of weeks ago. The Daily Politics will be replaced by Politics Live, which will air from Monday to Friday.
The new programme will be presented four days a week by Jo Coburn, who currently co-hosts Daily Politics with Andrew Neil. Neil will host a special extended programme on Wednesdays, to include Prime Ministers Questions.
This announcement was followed just a week later by the results of a poll for the Centre for Policy Studies which revealed the alarming state of the real democratic deficit in the UK. The CPS report suggests that ‘voters are profoundly ignorant about how government works’. For example:
- Only 71% of people understood that the House of Commons made laws that affected them
- 49% of Londoners are unaware that they had an elected mayor or that the mayor made rules that applied to them
- 42% of people in Scotland and 54% of people in Wales were similarly unaware that their devolved governments enforced laws that applied to them
- And, when asked which layers of government applied to them (parish council, district council, elected mayor etc), matching against postcode, precisely 0% were able to get the answer completely right
The survey also revealed incredibly low levels of trust in politicians of all types (consistent with survey findings for some time now).
In this context, the BBC’s announcement of a new show with the same presenters aimed at the same narrow audience, interested in the Westminster bubble, feels like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The new offering has been billed as “a fast-moving, conversational show,” featuring political interviews, discussion and video content “designed to be shared digitally”. For all its faults, the Daily Politics was only sometimes a slow moving monologue. Maybe digital sharing will be a step forward. But who will be doing that sharing?
Politics is more polarised now than at any time since the miners’ strike of the 1980s. Study after study shows that fundamental faith in the benefits of democracy is being lost. It must be restored. The very least the BBC should do is invest some serious licence fee money in programming that serves to ‘educate’ and ‘inform’ its wider audience about the fundamental workings of democracy in the UK. If it can ‘entertain’ that audience whilst doing so then great, but education and information would be a start.