Question Time, the long running BBC current affairs show, has been recently feeling the brunt of criticism and accusations of being biased towards the leave campaign and until recently most of that criticism has consisted more of comments on social media rather than hard proof. But following a revealing graph that has shown that all British MEPs who have been guest panellists in the past 5 years have been anti-EU, the team behind the show has been finding it difficult to defend themselves as being impartial.
But what is the real story behind the show? I use the term ‘show’ deliberately, because despite what the BBC want you to think, Question Time may have started out as a current affairs programme, but now it is something that competes alongside the very best of reality TV, because, let’s face it, we all love a good fight and no better subject for fighting about than politics.
Which is a terrible shame, because the original concept – a travelling town hall debate with a number of public figures who would be considered informed and capable of discussing the current issues of day has long gone. In its place now seems to be more of shouting match with the presenter, currently David Dimbleby, acting as some kind of a ringmaster, watching for highs and lows and ensuring that the constant threat of civilised debate is held at bay.
The Griffin episode
If one was to venture on Twitter and follow the official feed, you’d be forgiven if you thought the show was unpopular due to enormous backslash that seems to hit it before, during and after each broadcast, but the figures add up the other way with an average edition coming in at 2.5 million for audience figures. Tempting numbers indeed and probably the reason way the show has moved into the realm of reality TV. Because as much as we hate to say it, debates about everyday issues don’t bring in the crowds nowadays and the production team probably figured this out a long time ago, on the 22nd of October 2009 to be precise. Why that date, you may ask? Well, it’s a significant date, because it was the evening that the BBC broke the mould on who gets on as a guest when they invited the then head of the ultra far right National British Party, Nick Griffin. Griffin at the time was astoundingly beginning to move away from the pariah like status of Neo Nazi and into mainstream politics, so it was decided that he would be given a seat on the British national state broadcaster’s prime current affairs programme, Question Time. The decision sparked off a massive debate which was made even worse when Mark Thompson, Director-General of the BBC at the time, defended the broadcaster’s decision to invite Griffin, stating that “the BNP has demonstrated a level of support that would normally lead to an occasional invitation to join the panel on Question Time. It is for that reason – not for some misguided desire to be controversial, but for that reason alone – that the invitation has been extended.” This response was backed up by the BBC’s public broadcasting mandate which required it to give equal prominence to political parties above a given level of electoral representation. Indeed, there was no doubt that the BNP had at the time begun to gain more popularity and while technically it warranted inclusion of Griffin, morally, it caused huge controversy, of which you can read in great detail on its own dedicated Wikipedia page.
Nick Griffin with playwright and novelist Bonnie Greer on Question Time in 2009The most interesting outcome of Griffin’s appearance was that in the long run, it probably did more harm for him and BNP as it exposed his gang and himself to more scrutiny than he had ever prepared for, and it wasn’t long before he and his party were seen in the real world as absolutely unfit for any kind of public office. So while this outcome has a happy ending so to speak, the figures of that broadcast told a completely different story to the production team. That evening viewing numbers were ending up around 8.3 million viewers – an astounding figure when you compare it to the average of 2.5 million.
So was it at that point that the people behind the show decided that revolution would indeed be televised and out would go the moderate, calm and insightful debate to be replaced by rebels, cheeky chappies and general disruptions?
It was around this time that the successor far right party to the now imploding BNP, the United Kingdom Party, led by the ever louder former banker Nigel Farage, began to become more of a regular guest. His unwavering commitment to bring the UK out of the EU, a ludicrous proposition back in 2010, was seen in almost a clown-like fashion where guests and audience alike would prod him, waiting to see what he would say next and how outrageous he could become. Sometimes they would pit him against a well-known satirist or comedian like Russell Brand and see just how far the whole “debate” would go. And indeed, it had to be admitted that Farage held his ground well and positively thrived in the gladiatorial arena that the guest spots had now appeared to have morphed into. Question Time was now in a good place – lively, controversial and more popular than ever before, but the question was: who was it more popular with? Had the audience moved, with viewers now watching simply to see who would shout the loudest, or hurl the worst insult on the night and what about the audience there on the night? Was it becoming more evident that room was being given to the crazy man who wanted to bring back the British Empire or make English the de facto language around the world?
Yes, indeed, we did laugh, guffaw and gasp at the weekly turnout at the top table, but we forgot just how dangerous it was all becoming and so did the BBC. They forgot about impartiality and now how serious this anti-EU stuff was getting. They didn’t see the issue of promoting once fringe politicians and what their production decisions, along with the fickle emerging world of social media, would do when both were combined like some concoction about to explode in a school lab. They forgot their responsibility as one of the world’s leading broadcasters in that they facilitated populism and dumbing down of extremely important issues in the hunt for the big rating – the eclipse of Griffin night.
Too big to be wrong?
So as we now enjoy two years of the realisation of what was once one of the most ludicrous suggestions ever made by a political figure, we somewhat lament just how bad it has gotten when we see how the BBC officially reacted and responded to the latest proof that they have failed people not only in the UK but all around the world. When faced with the evidence, they tried to make the excuse that the last five years of Question Time is only a fragment of the entire period that the show has been running and that they should be judged on that and not their recent actions. “To be clear. The chart we’re responding to represents 5 years, not 18, 20 nor the whole history of QT. We have had other MEPs on the #BBCQT panel outside that timeframe. For example, Caroline Lucas pre-2010, Glenys Kinnock, Mairead McGuinness” which is how they responded to the publication of this exposing graph on the press team Twitter feed. Even the excuse they give is beyond parody when you consider that one of the guests, Mairead McGuinness, is an MEP for the Republic of Ireland.
But whatever way you look at this, there is no doubt that the BBC has failed at a crucial time when they should have been most vigilant and they must be made to answer to the British taxpayers who expected more from one of the most respected media organisations in history. The last five years more than ever required balance, even if that balance would mean less boisterous behaviour and more facts about what would really happen should the UK decide to go ahead with that utter folly that the likes of Farage blustered around in 2009. The figures would have fallen down and there probably would have been less late night parties in the production office, but at least the reputation of the BBC would have been preserved and we might not have ended up where we are today – watching a good old scrap broadcast live as an EU member state rips itself apart in the best tradition of reality TV entertainment.