Question Time's new format idea could actually save the show - and improve our democracy

Question Time's new format idea could actually save the show - and improve our democracy

Catherine Neilan

16:10 4th December 2020

The BBC has got a lot of flak this week for unveiling its latest tweak to the current affairs institution that is Question Time.

Love it or loathe it - and increasingly I have come to loathe the aggression and pomposity of both the panellists and the audience members - QT plays a vital role in shaping the news agenda.

It is not only a vessel for debate, but has become part of the debate itself. Back in 2009, the flagship programme sparked controversy by allowing BNP leader Nick Griffin to appear as a panellist. Producers were accused of wanting to create a "beanfeast", and of chasing ratings - in the latter's case, it was undeniably successful, drawing a record eight million viewers, more than double the previous high.

The BBC's argument, and that of independent production company Mentorn, was that the BNP was a formally recognised political party, with two MEPs and council seats in four London boroughs. The party might not have been to everyone's liking, but that is the problem with democracy, not TV. In short, it was the classic journalist's defence: Don't kill the messenger.

However, since then Question Time's position has become less defensible.

By the time of last year's election, Nigel Farage had appeared a disproportionately excessive 33 times. Indeed, by 2017 analysis by HuffPost suggests his former party Ukip had appeared on almost one in four Question Time programmes between 2010 and 2017 - despite never having more than two MPs. Conversely the Greens, who have had an MP consistently in the last seven years, only appeared on seven per cent of the shows.

It is easy to understand why. Farage and his cohort represent a particular point of view that is - or at least, was - at odds with the majority of the parties in Westminster and therefore producers returned to him again and again to ensure there was someone who could put forward the Eurosceptic view.

But that's not entirely accurate: there are many dyed-in-the-wool Tories who have been outspoken Eurosceptics for their entire career. There may have been reluctance among some of them to express that view at a time when it could have harmed their career, but the likes of Christopher Chope and Peter Bone have long held it as a badge of honour and certainly in the run-up to the referendum the role of Brexiter could have been played by more than just a Faragist.

The problem is not only with panellists however. Earlier this year the show came under fire for allowing an audience member to make a series of unchallenged claims about immigration, including complaining about the number of people "flooding in" to the country, which was "sinking" as a result.

She continued: 'What sort of country is allowing this tourism to come in? You arrive in a plane, you get free service, you can have your babies, you can just carry on having it all for free."

The year before, another audience member accused Labour of being "liars" about their proposed tax rises aimed at people earning £80,000 or more. "I am nowhere near the top five per cent," the man claimed, to applause. "You're not going after the millionaires, you're going after the employees."

This should have been a fairly easy issue to fact-check - either the top five per cent of earners are on incomes of £80,000 or not - but rather than being tackled by the theoretically neutral host Fiona Bruce, it became part of the overall 'debate'.

But unlike many this week, I support the shake-up announced this week, to recruit 50 regular audience members to help shape debate. Indeed, in many ways, it is not dissimilar to the core component of what Making Common Ground will be doing from the new year.

At its heart is the argument that regular discussion can help break down the barriers between people. This is a form of deliberative democracy, developed and championed by Stanford professor Dr James Fishkin, whose book Democracy When the People are Thinking is a must-read for anyone trying to work out a way back from the democratic abyss the culture war has led us to.

By allowing people to meet - even virtually - on a regular basis, they will no longer be "the racist", "the immigrant", "the delusional", "the elite" or any other label people care to throw around. They will be known by their names, and increasingly their apparently one-dimensional views will be seen within a wider context. The woman who wanted to shut off the borders for fear that immigrant women were using the NHS to give birth could "meet" with a migrant midwife or doctor, for example. The man who thought his £80,000 salary was nothing to write home about might "meet" a London-based care home worker who takes home £15,000 in the most expensive city in the country.

Once those barriers are broken, genuine healthy discussion can take place that allows for wider possibilities: the higher earner might feel he should pay more taxes to help support people carrying out a vital yet shockingly paid job. The woman who was calling for the UK's borders to be shut might realise the critical role that many migrants play in our society. And from there, constructive dialogue can begin and policies that are grounded in reality - rather than a tribal, socially-reinforced view of the world - can be formed.

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Tags: Journalism Immigration Brexit Deliberative Democracy Coronavirus