On the face of it, BBC Parliament is the narrowest of niche channels. You’d have to travel down the channel listings as far as Discovery Ironing +1 before you’d find something more niche. What it says in the lid is very much what is inside: Parliament. This means committee hearings and debates from the devolved parliament and assemblies, as well as full coverage of the Westminster chambers. They occupy the bulk of the schedule.
But there is something in the character of these debates and hearings which is the source of an idea we’ve been exploring. We care about authenticity and speech, unmediated. It’s the opposite of soundbite television. There is a lot going on in the political world which is worth hearing in full and a lot of resources to be tapped into – by way of archive and material from other broadcasters – not available anywhere else.
So, over a bank holiday weekend where the weather was less than inspiring, the channel made use of some surprising resources.
From abroad, we broadcast the whole of the election debate between Sarkozy and Royal (Friday evening with translation – all two hours 40 minutes of it). From the election night itself, the channel took coverage from TF1 and France 2, in French, for those who wanted to experience the event direct and as an alternative to the high-powered special presented by Jon Sopel on BBC News 24, (who, rather conventionally, stuck to broadcasting in English). Earlier in the day, we heard from C-SPAN, with Angela Merkel on the transatlantic partnership.
From the archive, ten years on from New Labour coming to power, BBC Parliament showed in entirety the election night broadcast and this ran all day across the rainy bank holiday Monday. We’ve been told that many participants in the 1997 election stayed glued to their sets, throughout the day. (Next stop in our tour of the election archive:1987, which is showing 5 October).
Drawing on the BBC’s wider resources, the channel showed BBC Scotland’s beautiful film by Ruaridh Nicoll. Patriot Games, examining the history of the Act of Union. And from our own archives, in a new documentary, Robert Orchard told the complex story of Tony Blair’s relationship with Parliament as he prepares to step down.
This morning, that extraordinary opening session of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Back to the Commons, this afternoon, and normal business.
The programming ‘specials’ do, I think, offer something of value and they get the channel noticed in newspaper articles and blogs. In turn, this helps us reach a wider audience for our normal parliamentary schedule. BBC Parliament is the only parliamentary channel, among dozens in the world, to have regular audience ratings (we reach around one million adults, per month) and I think these specials play their part.