Millbank mayhem

Observations on the media

The BBC's review of its political coverage is fast becoming mired in the preening ambitions and burning jealousies of its vast bureaucracy.

In the past, the corporation's political reporting has been entangled with the sordid business of lobbying Westminster for a nice, fat licence fee. This has meant lots of airtime for politicians, and consequent boredom for viewers. Blair crony and party funder Greg Dyke might have been expected to uphold this tradition. However, buttressed by an above-inflation licence-fee settlement, the director general has declared himself disgusted by the culture of collusion between his political staff and their quarry.

As a result, panic is sweeping the BBC's political HQ on Millbank, across the road from parliament but far from the power-brokers of Broadcasting House and TV Centre. Moving in for the kill are channel controllers eager to reclaim ratings-dead airtime and programme satraps out to destroy Millbank's cherished autonomy and appropriate its assets for their own empires. Just to get the ball rolling at one session, Dyke demanded to know why no one had suggested closing down Millbank completely.

A flurry of leaks emanating mainly from rival fiefdoms have suggested that the axe is poised over shows such as Despatch Box and On the Record. Such stories have had the desired effect on Millbank morale. Opportunists have also managed to exploit the corporation's commitment to the Great Digital Dream. Currently, BBC2 carries half an hour a week of regional political coverage. However, these different regional shows cannot be received by satellite viewers, as the BBC can currently transmit regional opt-outs from satellite only on BBC1. On the Record is on BBC1; so why not chop it in half and turn over the airtime released to the regional stuff? This will happen.

BBC2 will not get away with its coup unscathed. It will have to carry a new half-hour weekly show aimed directly at young, political refuseniks. Sadly, although more than 70 proposals for this programme are in hand, the one selected is bound to be thoroughly relevant, totally accessible and dumb as hell. Meanwhile, the truncated On the Record will no longer have room for the long-form interviews and coverage of non-mainstream topics that have been its raison d'etre.

Even more worrying, perhaps, is pressure to brighten up political news, so we see less of boring old Westminster. The political editor, Andrew Marr, originally seen, like Dyke, as a new Labour plant, has freed Downing Street stand-ups of their last vestiges of deference and made them the best bits of the bulletin. A switch of emphasis to vox pops and human interest input from the shires would not be good .

All is not yet lost. Millbank's desperate workforce has sought backing from the politicians themselves. To no effect: all the politicos care about is their own access to the cameras. In the on-going struggle, even Dyke is just another player. His pleas for analysis of political issues, rather than process, have yet to be heeded by underlings preoccupied with their own priorities. And he is about to discover that, in this field, he is not, after all, top dog.

The proposals of the political review committee, chaired by Dyke, are to be called in for perusal by the board of governors. Beeb-watchers think the board's new gaffe-prone but power-hungry chairman, Gavyn Davies, may seize this moment to cut Dyke down to size. Mere licence-payers interested in the future of our democracy can only watch and wait.

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