BBC Question Time and Any Questions – a personal view
There are four major factors to get right in order to produce a show with political discussion and audience participation such as BBC Question Time:
- The composition of the panel
- The composition of the audience
- The selection of the questions
- The manner in which the programme is chaired, allocating time and subjects to panel and audience
These factors equally apply to Any Questions on BBC Radio 4, except that the audience is not selected by the BBC (you apply to the venue), and the only audience members who speak are those whose questions are selected; however, this is followed by Any Answers phone-in, with participation open to all.
I suspect that the programme-makers would not claim to achieve perfect balance on all these factors every time. Historically, in my view, mistakes have been made, such as the extraordinary amount of opportunity given to Nigel Farage in the pursuit of airing all sides of the argument. But from personal participation in all three programmes over the last few years, to the extent that I’ve been able to, I can see clear intent for fairness on the four factors above.
It’s easy to perceive bias. My first thought on seeing the panel of Question Time on 24 November 2022 was “Why do they have a Tory MP – Richard Holden – AND Ben Habib of UKIP?”. But the panel was balanced with Andy Burnham, Charlotte Ivers and Darren McGarvey providing different views.
There has been much comment on the audience selection process. Some may find the application form and telephone interview intrusive (though personally I was happy with this). The proof of the pudding is in the views expressed by the audience – see the impact of ‘Leopard Print Hat’ and Philip Gough. They were also asked about the process of attending a Question Time audience and intervening, and their account of that experience is here.
I’ve been in the audience four times (once on TV, three times on radio) and submitted plenty of questions without getting picked. But the chosen questions typically reflect the concerns of the week, together with some quirky or short questions to help with time management towards the end of the programme; certainly, there had been plenty of encouragement to submit questions in order that the most popular ones can be chosen.
And then there’s the chairing. I’m very impressed with the skills of Alex Forsyth, the new chair of Any Questions. The chair undoubtedly has a challenging task. The Question Time approach is more dynamic than it used to be, bringing in audience members earlier. Many readers may be delighted with the readiness of Fiona Bruce to respond to the points raised by Leopard Print Hat and Philip Gough on 17 November 2022 and redirect the discussion towards an examination of the economic impact of Brexit.
Ultimately, we face a choice: complain about the shortcomings we perceive and disengage, or participate and influence.
BBC Question Time has frequently been criticised by pro-EU campaigners for the disproportionate choice of Brexit-supporting MEPs as panellists. In the ten years between 2009 and 2019, the show featured 50 pro-Brexit MEPs (47 UKIP or Brexit Party, including 33 appearances by Nigel Farage, and three appearances of arch-Brexiter Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan), but no MEPs from any other UK political party. I have shared the outrage many have felt at this blatant political bias. But is it justified?
The BBC might say that they invited UKIP MEPs onto Question Time because, unlike all other UK parties, there were no MPs to invite. Indeed, in September 2018, the BBC responded to criticism by publishing a graphic showing that over the period 2000–2018, Labour and Conservative politicians each had 21% of Question Time appearances (essentially, one participant in every show), while UKIP accounted for only 2% of appearances. These data were verified by tech blogger Iain Collins. But UKIP came to prominence late in the day. What was the situation in recent years?
Collins helpfully provided a downloadable listing of all Question Time panellists, with their political affiliations where known, from the beginning of the show in 1979 through mid-2019. Examination of those data reveals that the proportion of UKIP panellists was below 3% in all years except for the period 2013–2016 when the political influence of UKIP was at its height, with a maximum of 6.5% in 2016.
The BBC describes the composition of Question Time panels as achieving “… fair and appropriate representation from the various political parties across the UK. This means there will nearly always be a representative from the UK government and the official opposition … [and] … representatives from other political parties … [based on] … the level of electoral support at national level which each party enjoys”. The UKIP vote reached 27.5% in the 2014 European Parliament election and 12.6% in the 2015 UK general election.
Question Time can justifiably be criticised as biased for a preponderance of invitations to right-wing think tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs, with little or no countervailing representation of left-wing thought. And the representation of UKIP to the exclusion of all other UK MEPs certainly distorted the reporting of opinion from the European Parliament, at a time when UK-EU relations were the defining issue in UK politics. But UKIP was not featured disproportionately relative to other political parties, which were largely represented on the show by their MPs.
Non-elected guests on Question Time
In addition to elected politicians, the panellists on BBC Question Time include public figures from a variety of backgrounds – comedians, poets, farmers, novelists, journalists, TV and radio presenters, employers and trade unionists. Of 89 such guests this year, nearly half work in the media and most of those (31) are mainly known for their work in politics, economics or current affairs.
Left-leaning news outlets have seen one appearance for Alison Phillips of the Mirror and one for Guardian columnist Timothy Garton-Ash. Meanwhile in the blue corner, Murdoch’s Talk TV has six appearances, while GB News and the Telegraph have racked up five each. Add to this four from the Spectator two for the Mail on Sunday and one for Spiked and we have 23 from right wing media outlets compared to two – yes, two – from the left.
It’s also worth thinking about how far these outlets are from the centre. Obviously this is subjective, but it would take a very special kind of bias to think that the Guardian or the Mirror are anywhere near as far to the left as the Spectator, Spiked or GB News are to the right. The Spectator still has Rod Liddle’s child abuse fantasies on its website and last week a GB News presenter promoted his Substack article entitled Why Enoch Powell was Right.
It’s hard to imagine what the left-wing equivalent would even be, let alone thinking that it would get an airing in the Guardian or the Mirror. Even among the less partisan outlets, the centre-right business-focused Economist and Bloomberg outnumber the centre-left society-focused Vice by 500%.
After media figures, the next largest category of guest is from the business sector. Several of these candidates have explicit links to certain political parties – Stuart Rose was presented as chair of Sainsbury’s but is also a Tory peer. Ben Habib is chief executive of a property and investment company, but also a former Brexit Party MEP. Including these two, the UK’s 1.4 million employers have 15 appearances between them, while 6.4 million union members and 27 million employees have been represented by only six trade unionists.
Given the urgency of the climate situation, and the importance of energy policy this year, perhaps we should expect more than one appearance from a Green Party representative (half the representation of the Tory and Labour parties, per million votes). On the other hand the fossil fuel interest has plenty of representation – for example through two appearances this year for Nadhim Zahawi whose links to – and generous payments from – the oil & gas industries are well known.
Twenty-three appearances for right-wing media, but only two for the left. Fifteen employers but only five representatives of employees. A single Green MP, but two appearances for a politician who was paid £20k a month by a fossil fuel company while he was an MP. It’s pretty difficult to reconcile these with the idea that the BBC’s flagship political debate programme retains any semblance of balance.