Magazine article The Spectator

Why Yesterday in Parliament Should Not Become Tomorrow in Oblivion

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Yesterday in Parliament Should Not Become Tomorrow in Oblivion

Article excerpt

The changes announced by James Boyle, controller of Radio Four, seem generally pointless and in one or two cases positively harmful. One almost unnoticed piece of vandalism - and the most egregious example of `dumbing down' - is his plan to cut in half Melvyn Bragg's Start the Week. This 55-minute programme usually involves an intelligent ad hoc discussion between four or five people. Now it is being turned into half-an-hour's worth of interviews.

But I'm not going to examine Mr Boyle's ideas one by one. Others have already done that. My concern here is with Radio Four's Yesterday in Parliament, which appeared to escape Mr Boyle's silly revolution. Officially its future will be determined by the BBC News review, due to report in December, but there is little doubt it is already decided. Staff who work on the programme have been told that it will definitely be scrapped at its present time (8.40 a.m.) and in its present form.

Last week Mr Boyle came surprisingly close to a public admission. `We have an obligation to report from Parliament,' he said, `and we are delighted to do it. But we have to ask whether that is the best way to do it. It is losing 350,000 people when it comes on.' This is a BBC executive's way of saying that the programme will be shunted into a obscure slot, shortened and probably trivialised to make it more palatable to listeners.

To be fair to Mr Boyle, there is a superficial case for getting rid of Yesterday in Parliament, which was 50 years old in June. No one could doubt that what goes on in the House of Commons (which takes up some 80 per cent of the programme's coverage versus the Lords' 20 per cent) is a lot less remarkable than it was only 20 years ago. The quality of speeches has generally declined. Where are the great orators now? At the same time, Westminster appears to have ceded power both to Brussels and the executive. What goes on there is less important than it used to be.

These are arguments that have commended themselves to editors of quality newspapers, none of which supplies a regular account of what goes on in Parliament. Not many years ago you would have found four or five parliamentary reporters scribbling away in the press gallery during seemingly insignificant debates. Now the press gallery is sometimes almost empty - save perhaps for a reporter from Yesterday in Parliament. A humorous and possibly knockabout `Commons Sketch' is often the only way newspapers mark many hours of debate in our legislature.

What happens in Parliament may be less important than it was but it still matters a great deal. It is where Bills affecting us all are debated before they pass into law. It is where the government of the day is scrutinised and challenged, where even now an overmighty executive can be checked. I'm sorry newspapers should have decided not to provide general coverage, but they are commercial organisations making their own judgments, right or wrong. The BBC is not a commercial organisation. Even Mr Boyle admitted last week (though I wonder whether he believes it) that there are other considerations than ratings for a publiclyfunded broadcaster such as the BBC. The failure of newspapers to cover Parliament should redouble its determination to do a proper job.

Whatever Mr Boyle may say, Radio Four and the Today programme are involved in a ratings war. …

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