Boulton: scathing criticism
The BBC’s review of its political coverage in a move to make it more appealing to younger viewers has come under attack for demoralising its reporters and damaging political journalism.
Sky News’ political editor Adam Boulton criticised the BBC for undermining its journalists in what he claimed was a thinly disguised bid to increase ratings.
"Is the review about politics or about holding onto the Neighbours audience for the Six O’Clock News?" said Boulton, who claimed the BBC’s Westminster correspondents had been "demoralised" by the suggestion that its political coverage was boring. "This has been a massively damaging exercise of chest-beating which has been damaging to political journalism as a whole."
The BBC signed up former Newsnight editor Sian Kevill to revamp its coverage to try to attract under-45s who are turned off by politics.
But Boulton said that with "characteristic arrogance" the BBC had made the mistake of "thinking that its problems were the nation’s problems".
"If Sian Kevill wants to strangle John Humphrys’ On the Record or Andrew Neil’s Dispatch Box then that’s for her," he said. "But it has contributed to a wider loss of confidence among journalists and politicians, which will have an impact on democratic politics and political journalism."
ITV’s political editor John Sergeant said the review had helped make the BBC’s political correspondents "more nervous" of their position. "The effect of the review has not been good," he said. "The correspondents gesticulate all the time, because they are worried that in the next wave of changes they could be swept aside."
The exercise has cast doubt over the future of long-running programmes such as On the Record and Dispatch Box.
Kevill argued that the BBC’s political programming "had not changed for years" but acknowledged there was "a coalition of interests", including politicians and broadcasters who resisted change.
Kevill said the review was about getting "different kinds of people to watch", not about improving ratings.
"It’s all too easy to say we are dumbing down," she said.
Former Cabinet minister Michael Portillo said the BBC could not expect to solve the problems of all "settled democracies".
But he added that "blandness" was a "particularly British" issue that broadcasters could address.
The tendency among broadcasters to "believe that balance is achieved by talking about middle-of-the-road positions," meant politicians responded with "middle of the roadism".
Broadcasters could best serve the democratic process by having fewer "confrontational discussions" but to "get the ratings" it would have to go tabloid. "That is not a contribution to the better working of democracy because there is a conflict between the two," said Portillo.