Written by Noah Keate
The Palace of Westminster, pictured here in 2012, is the political epicentre of the UK.
What is the purpose of Saturdays? For students in normal times, they might provide the time to recover from a wild night before. Some students may spend their Saturdays completing part time work for extra employment. Whatever our affiliation with a Saturday, it is usually a day spent away from our commitments during the week (apart from exam season, where one day rolls into the next).
This is the same if we are engaging with political media. Even the strongest political obsessives such as myself want to use Saturday as a chance for unwinding and escaping from the latest political shenanigans. When the news can be as demoralising and depressing as is currently the case, any form of escape can be welcome. Listeners want nothing that is too intense, instead recognising that the weekend should be slightly gentler than intense news coverage during the week.
‘The Week in Westminster’ is a Radio 4 programme which represents that perfectly. Broadcast on a Saturday morning, it has aired ever since 1929 when Parliament is sitting. The programme aims to provide an informative insight into the week’s events and a summary as to what has been going on at the centre of where political decisions are made. This is helped significantly by there being no single presenter, which allows for a healthy mixture of views and ensures the programme never loses its novelty, despite having such a long duration.
Every week, the show mainly focuses on two or three main issues that have dominated the political agenda and captured the political mood. This may largely be shaped by significant speeches or debates in the House of Commons, which can be bought to a wider audience who might not listen to Yesterday in Parliament or indeed watch BBC Parliament. Clips from Parliament itself are interspersed with conversations that allow a strongly informative discussion to occur.
One of the main criticisms the BBC faces is its lack of time for spaces of proper, in-depth news coverage. Despite its 24 hour news channels, the BBC is easily criticised for not giving some issues enough attention. Yet the 30 minute limit has actually proven ‘The Week in Westminster’s strength. By only having half an hour to cover issues, it ensures any discussion must be concise, to the point and deeply informative. There is no time for waffle and mindless repetition (at least from the presenters). Every issue must engage in clarity first and foremost.
This ensures the questions are of a high quality. One of the best things a broadcaster can do is make their show sound deeply spontaneous, even when a large amount of planning and research has gone into it. That is clear on ‘The Week in Westminster’. Whether the presenter has a physical list of questions written down, or has got some ideas in mind, the discussions are succinct, engaging and always ensure the key points are raised.
Often, the show will involve a debate between two MPs who disagree on a public policy issue. For example, in a recent episode, Mark Harper MP and Layla Moran MP disagreed on the government’s unlocking scheme on July 19th. Their different point of views were placed clearly, they disagreed and the listeners were left to judge. However, their disagreement was in a reasoned, fair and honest way, something that is often far too rare in contemporary public debate.
‘The Week in Westminster’ tries to cover the entire week in the capital and might therefore cover policy issues that have received less attention. In the last week, the government amended the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, which has now given the power to call a general election once again to the Prime Minister. Though a vital part of how elections are decided, it largely went unnoticed in a week of football news and Freedom Day jubilation. It is programmes like ‘The Week in Westminster’, however, that ensure such issues remain in the spotlight. Our public knowledge and understanding would be immeasurably weaker if such programmes were to be taken off air.
Photo source - Flickr (Gordon Wrigley)