How the BBC’s political coverage is changing

As John Humphrys’ resignation nears, Evan Davis seemed to tell us that BBC cupboards are being cleaned. Gone are the interrogation years. 

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“Now, before we move on to talk about the European election, we’ve been thinking about our political coverage here…” So said Evan Davis halfway through PM (29 April, 5pm), in his usual equitable tone – but with an air of purpose that gave me pause. “We always want to be constructive in the way we cover politics and in the way we interview politicians – but can we do better?” Davis was like a policeman on a doorstep, being infinitely reasonable. “I’m not expecting we’ll satisfy everybody because some like it adversarial! Many don’t, though, want a shouty argument.”

Ah, I see. In anticipation, then, of John Humphrys’s retirement (the exact date is still to be confirmed), Davis is telling us that BBC cupboards are being cleaned. Gone are the interrogation years. Like a palimpsest, we shall wipe ourselves clean. Never, with us, will you have to suffer Jordan Peterson vs Cathy Newman. (Though in truth, these days the likes of Humphrys are only to be heard on Today a couple of times a week, and more likely chuckling bemusedly over new words allowed in Scrabble’s anniversary edition rather than asking Michael Heseltine the same question 50 times.)

Still, Davis went on to promise some “alterations” (“nothing drastic”) that might include “giving the interviews more time to breathe” and “setting out a clear purpose in advance to an interviewee and to you the audience”. But he assured us that it was at present all just “a thinking process”, encouraging listeners to email in with their thoughts. And fair enough. Long live a palpable concentration on getting things right.

Only, a larger problem now looms. One that will inspire far more temple-clutching confusion at executive levels. One far harder to fix: the decline in the whole meaning and prestige of politicians. Is it possible that power has now been so ceded from our elected representatives to private business and corporations that this formal and earnest change in the BBC’s approach will collide with our more than mere suspicion that any interviewee simply doesn’t matter so much? For who still believes that the major problems in society are soluble by democracy? And, in such a climate, will any political broadcaster survive? 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 08 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Age of extremes

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