Radio 4's 'Today in Parliament' Is Celebrating Its 70th Anniversary - I Take a Look Back...

Now, in spite of all the TV temptations and digital distractions,attracts more than a million listeners every week. In times of crisis it is even bigger. In 2003 as parliament debated the case for military action in Iraq, the weekly audience neared three million.

I arrived at Westminster in 1994, a clear eyed, clean limbed lad of 28 full of vim, vigour and the will to win.

Having already served my apprenticeship in local radio and television I was ready.

To be frank, the only mystery, as far as I was concerned was, why hadn't the BBC parliamentary unit called a lot earlier?

The answer came almost as soon as I started.

Like it is for millions my day just wasn't the same unless I'd heard Betty Boothroyd's cry of "order, order" at half past eleven at night.

Listening at home I admired how straightforward the parliamentary debates sounded with a clear structure and concise well made speeches.

In my first week I was given a large A4 notebook and instructions on how to report parliament.

On the left hand side of the page I had to write the time, hour, minutes and seconds. On the right I had to make a note of what had been said and by whom.

From my seat, amongst a host of legendary sketchwriters and political reporters, in the Commons press gallery just above the Speaker's Chair I had the perfect vantage point of the chamber.

The debate started and I began writing. After a few minutes my hand hurt. After an hour or so my head hurt. I hadn't appreciated just how hard I would have to concentrate on what was happening below me.

Nothing was straightforward. The speeches were anything but concise. I arrived back at the Today in Parliament offices with pages of notes but no clear idea of what had just happened let alone what I should do next.

Over the next months I learned that a parliamentary reporter must be able to take a lengthy, perhaps rambling, debate on a complex and serious political issue and turn it into a clear story (or narrative in the jargon of the trade) with a beginning, middle and an end. Oh, and it has be balanced with no hint of bias or commentary.

No wonder old lags regaled new inmates like me with tales of the legendary BBC parliamentary, correspondent, Conrad Voss Bark. In the 1950s and 60s he broadcast live without a script relying only on notes. Journalists still speak of the time he summed up a Budget speech on just one side of paper.

Of course those early correspondents like Conrad Voss Bark had to have fantastic notes because there were no audio or video recordings of MPs.

The BBC had been itching to broadcast parliament for years but neither the politicians nor the newspapers were keen to allow the BBC to report parliament at all. In the 1930s the Director General had to write to the Speaker for permission to send a reporter to the Commons. Sometimes, Mr Speaker said no. An odd thought today. In a democracy, the news is an essential public service and what more Reithian ambition can there be than to report on Parliament.

Relations had improved by 1945 when the BBC appointed its first parliamentary correspondent, ER Thompson. In January of that year the Director General, Sir William Haley, ordered staff to make plans for a daily summary of parliament as a "matter of urgency". And he stressed that the news staff would have to be "fully qualified to produce a thoroughly balanced summary". Those qualities of accuracy and impartiality remain just as important to the BBC 70 years on.

The first edition of Today in Parliament (or TiP as it became known) was broadcast on 9 October 1945. The fifteen minute programme was presented by a newsreader. The script was compiled from agency reports. That very first programme reported on the Attlee government and included an account of the first appearance of a young Harold Wilson.

After the third episode the DG sent another memo. He didn't want to hear words like "tartly" or "pointedly" in the reports. He thought they were "both comment and the beginning of a sketch". A year later he sent another warning against including "undistinguished wisecracks" from MPs.

Those memos are still on display in our office alongside a copy of the first script with its opening line, "The House of Commons reassembled in strength this afternoon, to get down to the serious business of the session."

It's now the stuff of BBC legend that Today in Parliament is the only programme the corporation is obliged to make. Having dragged their heels about allowing broadcasters in the politicians soon turned to worrying that the BBC Governors might drop it. So the requirement to report on parliament was written into the BBC's Charter in 1947.

Two and a half million listeners tuned in to those early programmes when staff at Broadcasting House would telephone ER Thompson so he could tell them about the "mood of the House".

Now, in spite of all the TV temptations and digital distractions, Today in Parliament attracts more than a million listeners every week. In times of crisis it is even bigger. In 2003 as parliament debated the case for military action in Iraq, the weekly audience neared three million.

The decision to allow the broadcasting of parliament in 1978 meant that listeners could hear the debates and arguments first hand and TiP could reflect more of the atmosphere and sense of theatre. In the 1990s, parliamentary correspondents took over the presenting duties from announcers ushering in a less formal style. Nowadays there's more of an effort to put parliamentary debates in a wider context. And we're not quite so sniffy about wisecracks.

Whether the story has been Suez or Profumo, the Falklands or Iraq, Attlee or Cameron, the aim of the programme has always been to allow listeners to know what is being said and done in their name. My colleague, Mark D'Arcy, our in house historian, always says a parliamentary correspondent has to be a combination of theatre critic, sports reporter and political nerd.

Parliament is theatre with a difference. Sometimes at the start of the day we're not sure how the story will end or who will be our leading players. Today in Parliament doesn't deliver a verdict. Instead, as the day draws to a close we offer the best seats in what can still be the most fascinating, exciting and sometimes frustrating house in the world.

Today in Parliament returns to Radio 4 next Monday 12 October at 11.30pm or catch up on BBC iPlayer. A special feature to celebrate the Today in Parliament 70th Anniversary can be heard on the programme on Friday 16th October.

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