Questions about Question Time

The latest edition of Question Time was from Motherwell, that kenspeckle bastion of Ukippery. To say it occasioned something of a stushie on social media would be to stretch the term understatement more than somewhat. This is not entirely unusual. The programme commonly attracts a mass gnashing of Scottish teeth, most obviously when it pitches its tent at a Scottish location.

But this time was different.  This time the more eagle eyed complainants were able to post pictures of the same very right wing, very loudmouthed, audience member to prove that he had apparently appeared no fewer than four times. And that, amazingly, each time his question was selected and often re-tweeted by the programme. 

Question Time is produced for the BBC by an independent company called Mentorn Media with its headquarters in London, but another office in Glasgow. Presumably the latter takes over the nuts and bolts of audience and panel selection when the show travels north of Carlisle. However if you go on to its website and select the section requesting to appear  in the audience on the programme you are immediately transferred to a BBC page with a standard questionnaire.

It asks, inter alia, if you have ever appeared on the panel before, if you have any political affiiliations (and if so to what degree), and how you voted in the 2016 European referendum. Two questions flow from this; either the man now the subject of much viewer fury has consistently lied and nobody has thought to check previous audience lists, or the selectors knew of his previous appearances but thought his agressive dememeanor was "good telly."  (It won't be the first time someone has been booked because his or her appearance would guarantee a rammy.)

Neither explanation offers much in the way of comfort. Question Time is routinely described as a flagship BBC programme and, indeed, in its heyday that description was well earned.  When it began in 1979 it was produced in house and the editor was a formidable woman called Barbara Maxwell. She and her production team operated to a rigorous set of rules which included no advance warning of questions, and absolutely no contact between panellists and audience. The cosy chat the QT recidivist was apparently having with Motherwell guest Lord Michael Forsyth could never, ever have taken place.

It's a long while since I last appeared on the panel, but it was still operating on those strict lines - at least so far as the panellists  were concerned. It also had four rather than the more recent five guests. I would imagine that with a long running programme like this, someone thought it needed tweaked and "freshened up".  On those occasions I have watched, it hasn't been clear what fresh insight has been brought by the additional guest. It's fine to have an inclusion policy which embraces outsiders not from politics and the commentariat. It's less obvious what some (not all) professional comedians or people proudly ignorant of current events bring to the party.

That was the point, I believe,  at which the demarcation lines between the current affairs  and  entertainment departments became rather blurred. Most of the people who watch programmes like QT do so because they are fascinated by politics and current events.  Mock the Week and Have I Got News for You? are readily available if they need a good laugh about them too.  

When Peter Sissons took over from Sir Robin Day  it was decided somewhere along the way that the programme would be hived off to an independent production company. Not the one currently running it, as it happens. Then, as we know, David Dimbleby had a stint lasting a quarter of a century.  So while, as several of the twitterati have pointed out with some asperity, the buck still stops with the BBC, they are not involved with the day to day running of the show or, given its same night recording and broadcast, are likely to have detailed oversight of it prior to transmission. That is not an excuse; merely an explanation of the logistics.

I'm not by nature a fan of conspiracy theories. Apart from any other consideration the serial hiring of ill disguised propagandists with an obvious and repetitive agenda is usually counter productive as witness our overly vocal friend from Thursday evening. (Serial propagandists with an obvious and repetitive agenda appearing on the panel is a separate issue. Doubtless Nigel Farage, in yet another "new" political incarnation will still be on speed dial.)

However I do have serious questions for those in the production company now running Question Time.  They know what the guidelines are, they know what the rules governing audience appearances are - why do they choose to flaunt them? Is it with malice aforethought or is it sloppy, careless production values. Either way, time for the BBC to re-examine the contract.