Is BBC Question Time fit for Purpose?

For a couple of weeks there has been an expectation. People have been posting on social media to contact friends to make them aware that a renowned BBC programme is being recorded locally. Have they applied to become a member of the audience? This is the moment to ask a question to those who can influence government thinking and decision making! So we applied in our droves and a few were picked. Those who did not make it had to be satisfied with the late Thursday evening telly shout. From 22.35 for an hour the weekly right wing filibustering begins (see Sociology Blogspot). Those who believe Question Time to have a left wing bias must understand that to be left wing means by definition being antagonistic towards capitalism or anti capitalist. It is also vital that one is pro egalitarian. Rarely do we have such panellists on any TV debating programme but especially not Question Time.

As a political analyst with his own blog I try to tune in every week to find any pearls of wisdom that I may have overlooked during the previous seven days. It is rare but on occasions it does happen. Never from a politician it must be said. If it happens it is a panel member who does not employ obfuscation as a career. That rules the mainstream media out too. Occasionally a business leader will provide a little enlightenment but the real gems occur from those who are not lumbered with an army of gatekeepers shouting ‘Achtung ‘ every time they get too close to telling us what is really going on. I won’t name them as it would be unfair on those who I have forgotten but if one is open minded enough I should not have to.

So it’s Thursday 24th January and Question Time came to town. Weymouth town to be precise. (That’s in Dorset, in case you are from the United States and believe that England is really London by another name). I have to mention at this point that for the previous week the programme had been billed as including George Galloway as a panel member. Come the night I rechecked and any disappointment of not being there evaporated. Not because I agree with his every sentiment but because he is not afraid to step out of the safe zone and explode reality into our consciousness. This week’s panel did though contain Ian Hislop (Private Eye), Anna Soubry (Conservative Health Minister), Ben Bradshaw (former Secretary of State for Culture), Ming Campbell (one time Leader of Liberal Democrats) and Angela Epstein (Freelance Journalist). The topics covered were the Referendum on European Union membership; schools and snow days; the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s economic policy; redundancies in the armed forces and whether poor people are fat.

Let’s take these in order:

The Referendum on Membership of the European Referendum

The question posed by James Foster (of Weymouth College) was ‘Is the referendum in the national interests or in the interests of the Conservative Party?’ We then had a defence by the government and a critique by the Opposition. Nothing new there then! Across the board there was general agreement in a referendum but the timing and whether we, the public, would be qualified to make an objective analysis were the primary concerns.

My take: The timing is politically motivated! Let’s not deceive ourselves. Whatever the party they put their own interests above ours whenever possible. Will the media provide us with a balanced narrative? Of course they won’t. We will get what their owners and editors demand. Most of the public will go with an ‘instinct’ manufactured for them. Even the BBC will only inform us with occasional substance late at night when most are watching celebrities or sport on another channel or sleeping in preparation for another day of hard slog. Just like the vote on electoral reform we will end up with a status quo (or near enough to it) and the government will get UKIP and ‘the mad right wingers’ (Ian Hislop) off its back for a while. If real change was on the cards believe me we would not be having a referendum. Few politicians expect anything other than a ‘yes’ vote with a few concessions from Brussels as sweeteners.

Schools and Snow Days

What the hell happened here? Jamie Wilson’s question was ‘If schools close is it for the safety of the children or are they afraid of being sued or fined by health & safety?’ The whole panel united behind schools staying open and some even felt the need to share their days at public and grammar schools from another era.

My take: The government policy since 1988 has been to shift responsibility for decision making on to local school heads and boards of governors. Thus when a school head decides that a school will close they are meant to be held accountable locally. Why do we need a question on ‘Question Time’? Why don’t parents who feel aggrieved contact their local schools and let them know their feelings? That is what is meant to happen. We do not need a public debate. I would have substituted this question with ‘Why is the government closing the coastguard stations and why are they moving the coastguard helicopter base to a distance that will endanger local lives?’ That is the burning question locally and yet not even a whisper. WHY?

The Chancellor of the Exchequers Economic Policy

Jonathan Jones asked ‘Is George Osborne’s programme of spending cuts credible?’

Government say ‘yes’ and the Opposition say ‘no’! So a useless debate there. Menzies Campbell supports the Tories; Ian Hislop slags off New Labour and Angela Epstein demands clarity from the government on their outcomes. No one defined ‘credible’ and no one provided criteria that we could measure it by.

My take: Another wasted opportunity to have a meaningful debate in which the audience are given clearly defined parameters. Personal experiences from public sector workers  were characterised as false by Anna Soubry because she did not ‘recognise them’. The strength of feeling by others suggested that this was not a person making things up. And yet the government will carry on hurting us. Do they really believe that we are lying or do they just not care? Over to you on that one.

Redundancies in the Armed Forces

Mark Tappin asked ‘Do you believe in cuts to the military as the terrorism threat grows in North Africa?

As thousands are cut from the armed forces the audience wanted to know who would be fighting the terrorist threat in North Africa. The Conservative minister described this as the most difficult decision the government has had to make. The inconsistency of the Prime Minister’s narrative of decades of terrorist threat and reducing the forces required to combat it was exposed. Ian Hislop gave us a brief overview of the degradations of Argentinean veterans and we were reminded of how homeland security was being undermined by an audience member (Dorset Police Federation Rep, Clive Chamberlain).

My take: So introducing a policy that is killing the disabled and long term sick whilst paying hundreds of millions to a private French health company to carry it out was less difficult? Says it all! However, back to the topic. The public logic of the government is flawed and inconsistent but because they are so explicitly dishonest it is difficult to gauge. Ian Hislop’s observation about the last government’s waste of resources is correct and the corrupt dealings with multinational arms companies by all governments are beyond question. We only get the tip of the iceberg on that one. The key questions surely are: If terrorism is an act that strikes terror into people then why is the allied massacre of village populations, the carpet bombing of civilians and the torture of internees not described in a more honest semantic? Why are we really in Afghanistan? What were the arrangements with the big corporations in Iraq and Libya? How many politicians are funded or benefit from companies that sponsor war? Once we answer these questions and others with honest answers we can start to make sense of it all. But not until.

Are Poor People Fat? (As asked by Matthew Lanley)

Following a quote from a conference speech at the Food and Drink Federation by Anna Soubry in which she stated that poor people were more likely to be obese and which she claims statistically is approximately 10% greater for poor people than more affluent people (challenged by Ben Bradshaw) we were treated to another let’s whack the disadvantaged opportunity. Although there were serious points to be made about the levels of salt and sugar in the food we consume and the lack of action by governments or food manufacturers to alleviate it nothing was raised about why we don’t legislate or why we have poverty in the first place.

My take: Again poverty was not defined or who collected this data and the methods used. We were merely expected to take the word of a politician (or not depending on how one votes) without any intelligent analysis. Why do we accept poverty? Why don’t governments legislate against levels of salt and sugar deemed unhealthy? Why do we transport our food great distances when we could make much more locally? Why is the cost of food so high and why is it not subsidised much more by the government…? Why is half the food produced globally going to waste? What is being done about it? Questions that are not asked and when answered become a bi partisan bun fight if you can excuse the pun.

Question Time is a tried and trusted formula that usually leaves people frustrated and angry instead of fulfilled and satisfied. Some may say that is to be expected in our parliamentary democracy. I would say that even in a democracy (that has an uncanny resemblance to a plutocracy) like ours we should still expect, on a so called neutral debating programme, to ensure a balanced panel week in week out with people who can generate knowledge and not defer to propaganda and dumbing down. If the viewing figures are only 2-3 million the BBC has nothing to lose. In fact they have everything to gain as do the audience and the viewer. I want to lick my lips when the hour is up not search for yet another missing filling. Come on BBC we can and must do better than this. Until you do it is not fit for purpose. Not anyone’s!


For those who missed the programme here is the link: Question Time

Douglas James