I fear this rabble-rousing Leftie bear pit has had its day
WHEN it started nearly 40 years ago, BBC1’s Question Time set out to give audience members the opportunity to put politicians on the spot, as had happened for many years on the radio with Any Questions?.
Under the chairmanship of the late Robin Day during its first decade, Question Time really did succeed in enhancing democratic debate. It was always spirited but seldom petty or rancorous. Courtesy was usually maintained.
One fondly remembers appearances by ‘big beast’ politicians such as Norman Tebbit and Enoch Powell on the Right, David Owen and David Steel in the centre and Tony Benn and Peter Shore on the Left. As a young journalist, I often felt I could learn something from the programme.
No longer. In recent years it has, frankly, become a bear pit, characterised by baying audiences that don’t politically or culturally reflect the general public, and often thirdrate panellists who can’t be relied on to know anything about politics, or for that matter, much else.
Its urbane 78-year-old chairman, David Dimbleby, has looked increasingly uncomfortable as he tries to keep a lid on turbulent proceedings. He bears an expression which is half-amused, half-disapproving, as though he knows in his heart that he has wandered into a mad house.
But in its long decline, the programme has never sunk as low as it did on Thursday. After its ten-week summer break, it returned with a line-up that would have hardly flattered a village debating society, and an audience in London’s Stratford East that seemed typically skewed to the Left.
It has, after all, been an eventful summer. No one could deny that this country faces great challenges. Why couldn’t the BBC — or Mentorn Media, the production company responsible for the show — have risen to the occasion and produced a panel of substance?
Batting for the government was David gauke, the Work and Pensions Secretary. He is a very decent fellow but his dogged and not invariably rapier- like performances will never set the heather alight. One suspects that, coming from his lips, our triumphant victory at the Battle of Trafalgar would have seemed like disappointing news.
Also on the Right was Julia Hartley- Brewer, a robust and fluent journalist who comes across better on the screen than she does on the page. Although on two occasions she used the programme to plug her rather obscure radio show, she sounded reasonable and sane.
The Left — and I mean the pretty Hard Left — were accorded three representatives by the BBC in what was surely an example of the Corporation’s deep- seated and instinctive Left-wing bias.
Dawn Butler, the Corbynista Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, turned out to have as much understanding of economics as I do of particle colliders. Another panellist, Kirsty Blackman (a self-effacing young woman who has much to be self-effacing about), is the Scottish National Party’s deputy leader in the Commons. Isn’t it bizarre how often economically illiterate SNP politicians pop up on Britain-wide BBC political programmes despite their party getting only 3 per cent of the national vote?
The third Leftie was one of Auntie’s favourite new pets — the novelist Will Self, a lugubrious and supercilious character who likes to present himself as a man of the people despite having attended a well-known English public school and being immensely pleased with himself. Most famously, he was sacked from the Observer newspaper after snorting heroin in the lavatory on Prime Minister John Major’s jet while part of the Tory leader’s election campaign press party in 1997.
As for the members of the audience, to judge by their response to a question about the public sector ‘pay cap’, which took up about a third of the programme, they were also heavily inclined to the Left, though Mentorn and the BBC are supposed to ensure that they are politically representative of the wider electorate. I don’t recall a single person in the audience who didn’t think that the government had either been wrong to apply a pay cap in the first place, or was misguided in lifting it only for the police and prison officers.
On the panel, Tory minister gauke was pretty hopeless, and made little or nothing of the record figures for employment published earlier in the week. Labour’s Dawn Butler wanted everyone in the public sector to have a pay rise immediately, and claimed that there were enough banknotes on Jeremy Corbyn’s magic money tree to pay the extra £9 billion needed a year.
The Scottish Nationalist woman thought much the same.
But for sheer nastiness, neither woman could compete with the rabble-rousing Self, who was busy stirring up class hatred. ‘Why don’t you print some more money like you did for the bankers?’ he sneered at David gauke in a particularly nonsensical heckle.
He also asserted, to applause, that ‘the poor have got poorer, and the rich have got richer’. In fact, this is not true — not that truth is of much importance on Question Time these days.
The independent and respected Institute for Fiscal Studies recently published a report which showed that inequality between the rich and the poor has narrowed since the 2007-08 recession. In London, there has been a ‘dramatic’ fall in inequality.
If Will Self is a typical Left-wing intellectual, god help the Left-wing Establishment. Believe it or not, he is Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University. We must pity his poor students.
It was much the same during the discussion on Brexit, where Julia Hartley-Brewer was the only panellist who had voted Leave, though there were several members of the audience who spoke out against the majority panel view — namely that Britain is doomed.
Apart from the sheer vacuity of everything, what was so depressing about this deranged zoo was the absence of reasoned debate and knowledge and basic civility. This was the 4th XI at play, and, instead of bats, they were wielding lumps of wood.
One lesson I draw from all this is that if Tories are going to participate in such rumbustious bear pits, they had better produce spokesmen who are more eloquent and intellectually fleet- of- foot than poor David gauke. He may well be an excellent minister, but this was not his forum.
A deeper question has to do with the future of Question Time. Hasn’t it lost its point as it has divested itself of seriousness and the common courtesies? It no longer contributes much, if anything, to the democratic process. Whereas Radio 4’s Any Questions? remains interesting, lively and informative (with David Dimbleby’s brother, Jonathan, always quick to chide unruly members of the audience), BBC1’s Question Time has, in effect, become a form of feral, reality television.
Moreover, the apparently in-built bias to the Left ( always absurdly denied by the BBC) is another affront to democracy. During a special election edition of Question Time at the end of May, members of a supposedly balanced audience jeered whenever Jeremy Corbyn was criticised. Even the oh- so-right-on presenter Mishal Husain was heckled when she pointed out that Corbyn had struggled to cost properly Labour’s flagship childcare policy.
David Dimbleby’s heart is plainly no longer in controlling this circus, though he is doubtless unwilling to give up his stupendous earnings, which, unlike the majority of BBC salaries, still can’t be published because he is technically paid by Mentorn.
Yet I wonder whether new blood would make much difference. Question Time in its present form has become so debased and dumbed down that I doubt a new chairman could save it.
Thursday’s edition was shaming and dispiriting. British democracy urgently needs a programme which fulfils the role of Question Time. We just don’t need the programme it has become.
A new low? The Question Time line-up on Thursday