Andy Burnham came to the Commons yesterday to tell us of his plans for digital Britain. Someone had already upstaged him by briefing the press overnight, and Number 10 held a morning briefing well before the Statement in the Commons. Parliament has come to expect that kind of treatment from this government, and does nothing to stop it.
Mr Burnham is thought at Westminster to be one of the brighter Ministers. He was certainly more sensitive to the mood of the House, and did not treat all Opposition MPs to idiot political soundbites. It was not, however, to be his great day.
There were not many people on his side of the House to urge him. It was a Thursday. Labour business managers rarely put anything on any more on a Thursday which requires a vote or sparks genuine debate so many MPs have taken to doing other things on such days. He announced a raft of new reports and quangos, whilst comparing the importance of what he was saying to the launch of the Penny Post in an oblique rhetorical flourish that was unlikely to work.
I asked two things. The House was so empty I felt I could ask a double question, something which most do as a matter of routine but which is bad form when time is pressing and other colleagues wish to be heard. I asked whether he shared my concern about the quality of broadcast sound in this country following the advent of digital radio. I have met several people now who share my experience. We have to place our radios up very high with their aerials fully extended to be able to hear an FM programme. These programmes are now more likely to be interrupted or to lose sound volume and quality. I also have reports of people experiencing similar difficulties in picking up programmes on digital. Former BBC technicians have said to me they think too much is being compressed onto narrow spectrum by the BBC, making it unlikely we will solve the quality problem by switching to digital. Mr Burnham expressed surprise and asked me to write to him about it so he could look into it.
I also asked when cricket lovers might be able to hear BBC cricket commentary on FM and digital rather than just on 198. Mr Burnham thought you could already.
Jeremy Hunt asked when there would be digital car radios. There was no answer to that either.
The Opposition pointed out that the government’s aim for faster broadband was taking a speed which was below the current average! At least that’s one target they might hit.
The digital revolution apparently will be powered by quangos, reviews and partnerships. Funny that. I thought it might be powered by finding reasons why people should buy a digital radio, and making sure they could then hear what they wanted to hear in good quality.