August is normally regarded as the ‘silly season’ for political stories. With Parliament in recess, the media usually construct stories that would never receive the time of day during major political developments. All that has been turned on its head this year. MPs are rightly taking brief holidays, no doubt in the UK, but will otherwise be still dealing with case work related to the pandemic. On a national level, coverage of injustices – government failures on lockdown and A-level results – still receive national attention. It is impossible to stay out of the political loop.
Strangely, this is a good thing. The public should be aware of how politicians are behaving and what those in power are up to. Ignorance is undesirable, not least when elections are around the corner. However, avoiding a news burnout is so important. Switching off the 24 hour news channels occasionally is crucial for one’s mental health. Nonetheless, there are ways to engage with the news without it seeming such a burden.
I speak of podcasts. Recorded programmes available to download on numerous platforms, they cover all the genres anyone could possibly be interested in. My podcasts, unsurprisingly, are mainly those covering news and current affairs. They are a remarkable medium. Whenever I listen to, I simultaneously feel up to date with the news while never overwhelmed by the deluxe of information. Perhaps that it is because they have been recorded and there is retrospectively time to reflect on the content.
Anyway, for all podcast novices or obsessives out there, here are ten political and current affairs podcasts that I believe are essential for a well rounded understanding of the world. I think they are brilliant not simply because of the content they discuss, but the manner and personality of the presenters. With audio broadcasts in particular, that is vital for engaging audiences, maintaining high quality discussion and, importantly, retaining listeners from one episode to the next.
For the Many
This has been my favourite podcast for at least two years now. LBC presenter Iain Dale and former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith reflect on the domestic and international scene biweekly, providing insight and analysis from their many decades at the heart of Westminster. This is combined with cheeky humour that’s not for the faint hearted. Listener questions are a staple part of the programme; I’ve been lucky enough to have a number of mine read out over the years. Though Dale and Smith originate from different political ideologies, they get on like best friends.
The New Statesman Podcast
The official politics podcast of the fine New Statesman magazine is presented by Stephen Bush and Anoosh Chakelian. The podcast is structured around analysis of a key event at Westminster alongside a listener question. Both Bush’s experience as political editor and Chakelian’s as Britain editor ensure insightful, perceptive analysis that makes you consider an issue completely different. Interspersed with cultural references and analogies, I feel like I’ve been taken into the corridors of power. Regular contributor Ailbhe Rea, New Statesman political correspondent, also provides additional helpful analysis. Former contributors Helen Lewis and Patrick Maguire, now of the Atlantic and Times Red Box respectively, are sorely missed.
An organisation that has suffered from the banning of large gatherings with their famous debates often streamed and available on YouTube, Intelligence Squared had thankfully utilised the podcast platform before the pandemic hit. Covering a number of issues, from political discourse to East – West relations, I download every episode regardless of whether I have an interest in the topic beforehand. Why? Because I always know that, whatever is discussed, I’ll learn something new and the ideas will be uncovered intelligently! The range of presenters also ensures the podcast never gets stale.
Rock n Roll Politics
Steve Richards is a Westminster legend. A political editor and broadcaster of UK politics for decades, the breadth of time covering politics means his analysis, speculation and reflections cannot be missed. His impressions of political figures are masterful and could come in handy with the planned revival of Spitting Image on BritBox. Though he has been combative in his ‘Remain’ stance, Richards manages to go beyond political tribalism and discuss political events as he sees them without fear or favour. The 30 minute unscripted, one take broadcasts he had undertaken for BBC Parliament are required viewing by all politicos.
A podcasts from David Runciman and Helen Thompson of the University of Cambridge, this cuts beyond academic jargon that only those who read the highest quality of journals would understand. At the same time, Runciman and Thompson’s vast intelligence and knowledge of politics is evident. A mixture of interviews, analysis on current events and also reflections on political history ensure the podcast’s title is definitely fulfilled. During lockdown, Runciman also completed a 12 part series on political ideology called A History of Ideas which is just fantastic.
One of my desires as the US election draws closer is to develop a deeper understanding of American politics. Americast with Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis and the BBC’s North America editor Jon Sopel does this brilliantly. Whether you’re an expert or amateur with regards to all issues American, the duo guide you throughout all the essential information needed. Styled off Brexitcast (now Newscast), it was temporarily paused during the height of the pandemic and is now back with a vengeance.
Archive on 4
While focusing on current political issues is important, understanding the past is deeply beneficial. After all, it is often the past that shapes the future. Archive on 4, on Radio 4, manages this fantastically. Like the Intelligence Squared podcast, it covers a range of issues which I might not be interested in initially. Yet over the hour, my interest increases dramatically. Enlightening presenters, fascinating interviews and footage from decades ago brilliantly weaves the story together. More often than not, the programme demonstrates how decisions made by politicians decades ago still have an impact on the public today.
The Media Show
The media and politics remain closely linked. Despite tabloids selling a fraction of their circulation 15 years ago, the connection between who makes the decision and how they are reported is vital. After all, the public are far more likely to receive information about political decision from the News at Ten rather than BBC Parliament. Even with the latter, the BBC are still choosing which political meetings to broadcast. Amol Rajan, the BBC’s Media editor, hosts a weekly forensic half hour on media news. I find the programme’s willingness to criticise and interrogate the BBC admirable. The podcast is yet another reason why the corporation should remain in public hands.
The Briefing Room
David Aaronovitch is a fine columnist for the Times. On Radio 4’s Briefing Room, he puts his own opinions to one side and instead acts as the inquisitor. In a sense, he speaks for the audience as he uncovers one big political issue each week. Recently, most of them have been related to coronavirus, as you would expect. Yet every edition, regardless of the topic, is analysed in a decisive, impactful way. The step back from 24/7 news and focus on interviewing the experts leaves me feeling far more informed.
This podcast title unites together the key factor of all the podcasts: their analysis. News information and reporting on the day’s events is necessary, but analysing the deeper stories shaping the world is essential too. Analysis does this well, with a different presenter each week covering various aspects of public policy. What I like about Analysis is its enthusiasm for covering issues that are not dominating the news agenda at the present time. When so many issues receive attention for one day and are then ignored, a programme that aims to cover something, regardless of how engaged people are, should be celebrated.
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