More people are taking part in political debates through television and radio despite the fact that voter turnout has dropped to record lows in recent years.
The decline in traditional forms of political participation such as party membership and voting has been matched by a growing number of studio debates, phone-ins and single-issue debates on TV and radio, research carried out by a team from Stirling University has revealed.
While only 59 per cent of adults bothered to vote in the 2001 General Election, nine million people tuned in each week to programmes such as the BBC’s Any Questions? on Radio 4, Question Time on BBC1, Nicky Campbell’s phone-in on Radio Five Live, and ITV’s Jonathan Dimbleby.
Other programmes included in the study were ITV’s Ask the Prime Minister, Channel 5’s The Wright Stuff, BBC Radio Scotland’s Lesley Riddoch and ITV’s single-issue debate, The Nation Decides.
The research, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, shows that since the launch of Any Questions? in 1948, politicians and their policies have come under an increasing level of critical scrutiny through a variety of programmes aimed at a broader range of viewers.
Jonathan Dimbleby told researchers that a programme like his "really does serve as a substitute for the best kind of hustings".
But although discussion programmes were valued by viewers and listeners as well as politicians as an important part of the political process and as a means of stimulating debate, their popularity is not reflected in voter turnout or a resurgent interest in the electoral process.
Channel 4’s head of current affairs, David Lloyd, is quoted as saying: "If you (the public) are disaffected with the political process, it won’t be for a lack of information, it will be for a lack of belief that the political process has touched your own life. And that is not our responsibility. That lies elsewhere."
Despite recognition that reversing the trend of low election turnout is not a task for broadcasters alone, the BBC recruited former Newsnight editor Sian Kevill to carry out a review of its political coverage.
Politicians have already expressed concern over speculation that programmes such as John Humphry’s On The Record and the parliamentary programme, Despatch Box could be axed and replaced by more "popular" formats as a result of the review.
But the report urges broadcasters to experiment with new mid-market and tabloid formats "that do not shy away from infotainment" to attract women, non-white and working class audiences.
Dr Brian McNair, who led the research team, concluded that people are more interested in politics than "the pessimists would have us believe", claiming that the way they get involved in the political process is changing.
"The public has recognised that political discussion programmes – from the BBC’s Question Time to Radio Five Live’s Nicky Campbell Show – provide them with real opportunities to engage politicians in head-to-head debate away from the protection of spin doctors and the political machinery that protects them from public scrutiny," he said.