Why Don't The Panelists On 'Question Time' Ever Let Rip At The Public?
Because it is a weekly reminder of just how ugly and slow democracy can be.
Illustration by Dan Evans
Culturally, the United Kingdom is a confusing place. It's like America, but with less shouting and more antique shows; like mainland Europe, but with slightly better clothes and worse crisps. Dotted around our lumpen grey rock are an assortment of weird and wonderful celebrities and phenomena – the flag bearers and rituals of our Isles. To foreign eyes they might appear confusing – inexplicable, even – so with that in mind, these seminars intend to elucidate who they are, and why. Welcome to British Studies. Lesson 3: Question Time.
Politics. You can barely move for the stuff at the moment. In the ongoing social experiment that is 2016, our ability to engage with the "big questions" of the day has become more important than ever. Among other things, the recent US election has given us in the UK a harrowing insight into the mechanisms of US political television. From the smug incredulity of John Oliver's "epic rants", to the actual medieval madness of Alex Jones' INFOWARS, it is a world of programming where different opinions are so far away from engaging each other they literally have their own TV channels. The debate simply constitutes a series of monologues performed by dogs with collar cones on.
What is lacking, surely, is a platform on which political figures and the public are forced to have an actual conversation. Wouldn't that make the dialogue more constructive at least? Wouldn't we understand each other a little better that way?
We have one of those. It's called Question Time. Let's discuss how that's working out for us.
Question Time first aired on British television in 1979, and since then well over 1,000 episodes have aired. In its current incarnation, it is an hour long programme in which five panelists sit around the sort of shiny desk you'd expect to find in the IT suite of a new-build sixth-form, replete with a massive light-up "Q" that has the name of whichever economic capital the discussion is taking place from that week: for example, Dorking. The premise is simple, over the course of the hour the panelists take it in turns to answer questions from the audience, who then – along with the other panelists – scrutinise them based on their responses and political convictions.
The intention is to engender a robust but lively debate, exploring the issues and offering constituents an opportunity to hold the political class to account in the public sphere. The reality is every terrible secondary school debate club captain, every patriotic dad on Twitter, every patronising small-business owner, every old person who remembers World War II, every infantile newspaper columnist, and every question-dodging, party-line treading, PR-ed out of personality, shiny-suited, shinier-foreheaded politician there ever was, all locked in a room together with only one boom-mic to go between them.
Let's begin by outlining the typical panel for an episode of Question Time. There are five panelists each week, generally speaking they are:
A tired looking Labour MP – probably a 26-year-old back-bencher who has suddenly become the shadow defence secretary – who spends the episode trying to find an impossible perspective that is somehow both left and right, centrist and socialist, radical and sensible.
A Conservative MP whose tekkers seem to be staying completely silent unless spoken to, at which point they will squeeze out a neatly packaged, airtight sentence of puffy nothingness. You get the feeling that most Tories on QT just want to get to the end without saying anything of note, so that they can retreat back to their palace of precarious power and continue their silent reign over the world-on-fire.
A third party MP. This will either be a bloke with a lumpy face from UKIP, a genuinely IDGAF SNP MP, a woman with a big scarf from the Green Party, or a nice young man from the Liberal Democrats who starts of by saying, "There's actually a lot of good things about the EU", gets booed and spends the rest of the episode hiding under the desk.
Then you have the two public figures: normally a left-wing actor or a comedian who speaks only in sweeping cliches like "we're all immigrants when you think about it" and a more right-wing newspaper columnist who doesn't wear a tie, gets condescending about "common sense" and definitely smells of fags and supermarket Bordeaux.
Then, overseeing proceedings, is septuagenarian broadcaster David Dimbleby, who at this stage – glasses drooping gently from the end of his nose, cutting answers off halfway through if he finds them boring – looks like he'd much rather go home, eat a box of Ferrero Rocher and fall asleep in a recliner chair with his socks on. It is up to him, in his own cantankerous, "grandfather telling everyone to be quiet so he can hear the cricket" way, to referee, to mediate between the panelists, and decide which of the bright political inquisitors sitting in the studio audience will get the opportunity to bless mic.
Which brings us onto the audience.
There has been much said, in the current political climate, that the voices who have been ignored for too long are finally being heard. That we are currently experiencing a populist uprising. Only, they have been being heard. They've been being heard this whole time, because they've all been on Question Time. All of them, at the same time.
"Yes, you there," Dimbleby says, pointing into the middle distance. "You there, with the flannel shirt, next to the lady with the eyebrows, in front of the gentlemen with braces..."
The boom mic operator swivels to-and-fro, and eventually locks in on Dimbleby's chosen one.
"When is the government going to stop dithering over Brexit?" coughs Ken from Barking.
"Why does the government hate the NHS so much?" squawks Trudy from the Isle of Wight.
"Why don't they make poppies for dogs?" booms Steve from Hull.
"Why does the panel think it's acceptable to give benefits to foreigners and suddenly that makes me racist?!" Jennifer from Inverness shrugs.
Because you see, the thing is, nobody asks a question on Question Time because they want an answer. In fact, half of the time, people don't even ask questions, they just make statements like, "I think it is absolutely disgusting that taxpayers money is being spent on air-conditioning in the House of Lords." The only reason anybody ever says anything on Question Time is because they want a round of applause. A QT round of applause is the greatest seal of approval one can bestow upon another's political opinion in this country. If you manage to say something really impressive, something that really cuts to the heart of it all, something moving, poignant and powerful like "perhaps it's time for the government to stop wasting time and actually get something done," then the claps are inevitable.
And that's all anybody in the audience really wants. A pat on the back for having an opinion. They've sat there patiently, sweating palm gripping the slip of paper with their pre-approved question on it, waiting for Dimbleby's withered, weary finger to point to them. They say their piece, their voice is heard, the applause begins to ripple, and they sink smiling back into their chair – safe in the knowledge that they have altered the discourse indefinitely.
And the worst part is, in a culture in which the public mustn't ever be patronised, mustn't ever be "sneered at", the panelists pander to every ill-informed opinion and binary question. Treating them with the sort reverence people used to save for, you know, experts.
"I actually think that Jeremy Corbyn is like, actually honest, not like other politicians, so I think that, like, other politicians should be made to stop wearing ties to be more like him..." says a funny-looking student.
"I think you make a really good point," the shadow minister of international development responds, piece by piece, dying inside.
"Why are we still in the EU when the country clearly voted OUT?" barks a short man in tweed.
"Well it's actually quite a complex process, undoing 30 years worth of legislation written to include 28 member states you stupid bitch," the home secretary thinks, deep down inside her blackened heart. "The British people have spoken, and I think that's really important," she actually says.
And so it goes on. An infinite dance between an invincible populus and a back-footing, safe-guarding, opinionless political class. Question Time is unlikely to make you feel any better about the state of things. In fact, it serves more purpose as a weekly reminder of just how ugly and slow democracy can be.
For anyone who's been watching the programme regularly across the past few years, the current state of division and misinformation in politics won't be a surprise – the prejudices and stubbornness of the British population (of all political leanings) has been on display week in, week out, for decades. Nothing constructive is ever achieved, no conclusion ever reached, no conversation ever finished. Question Time is the echo chamber made flesh, a live-stream of a town-hall meeting, an hour spent in the back of the car listening to your parents argue about the traffic.
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