MPs criticise changes to BBC's political coverage

By David Rose

The BBC’s revamped political programmes came under attack in the Commons this week. Shadow Media Secretary John Whittingdale accused the BBC of dumbing down its television coverage, which saw the scrapping of On The Record and Despatch Box.

“I have received assurances the new BBC political programmes will offer at least as much coverage of news and current affairs as before,” Whittingdale told MPs debating the communications bill. “But I have to say a lot of us regret the passing of On The Record, the passing of Despatch Box and we will look with a critical eye at some of the new programmes.”

The new programmes – The Daily Politics, This Week and The Politics Show – have been designed to make politics more accessible to viewers, who have become jaded with political coverage.

Broadcasting minister Kim Howells moved to calm MPs, telling them that the BBC will have to secure the approval of new media super-regulator Ofcom if it wants to reduce peaktime TV news.

The minister announced the Government had updated its agreement with the BBC to take account of Ofcom’s regulatory role when it replaces the Independent Television Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Commission later this year.

Ofcom will be empowered to fine the BBC up to £250,000 if it contravenes the agreement which

supplements its Royal Charter.

Whittingdale told Howells there was a lot of

concern in Parliament over the BBC’s new political programmes.

He criticised the switch of Panorama to a late-night weekend slot, the replacement of On The Record, and the BBC governors’ role in changing the evening news slot.

Howells, who circulated copies of the amended agreement to MPs this week, said: “I can assure you that the agreement will require Ofcom’s approval

if the BBC proposes to reduce the proportion of

news at peak time or reduce the amount of news in general.”

Whittingdale, however, warned the BBC it was on trial. “We are going to look very critically at the BBC’s political coverage in the next few months to ensure it doesn’t reflect a reduction in quality.”

lBSkyB and other satellite and cable channels broadcasting into British homes should be forced to take party political broadcasts, according to the Electoral Commission.

In a review of party political broadcasting, the commission also called for the BBC to come under the same legal responsibility as its commercial terrestrial rivals to show the broadcasts. The BBC has no formal legal obligation to put out the broadcasts, but in practice it does on BBC One and BBC Two as well as on Radio Two and Radio Four.

However, Radio One and Radio Five Live do not put out the broadcasts.

David Rose

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