It's easy to forget that once upon a time, Question Time was an overtly "serious" bit of political programming, mostly consisting of interchangeable cabinet ministers called John Fielding politely asking questions about agricultural reform and the IRA. Sure, it was interesting enough, if you're into that sort of thing. It was what it was, a cult show for concerned citizens and politics students. A piece of living, breathing governmental accountability, long-winded democracy in Technicolor.
But today the show is a very different affair. The staid, sensible world of post-Scargill, pre-Blair politics seems a long way away, when Dimbleby shouts out the hashtag at the beginning of the show. The glamorous, gladiatorial world of panel shows, adverse journalism, social media and public relations can now be felt in the QT's weird travelling circus of loudmouths, liars, fall guys and yes-men.
It's more like bare-knuckle fighting now – or perhaps public executions – than it is the PMQs for the people. Everybody is looking for their moment of glory – that perfectly timed Ed Balls gag, that killer stat to put a flailing Lib Dem defence out of it's misery. The politicians, the punters, everyone's looking for their 'Will Self vs Carol Vorderman' moment that they can forever misquote in AS Level politics exams.
Last night's episode – featuring the most reactionary liar in Britain, Piers Morgan, and the most reactionary thug in Britain, Joey Barton – was Question Time 2.0. They're two very famous, disgraced dickheads, whose Twitter Interactions read like Richard Ramírez's dream journal – what's not TV about that?
You can imagine how the meeting went: "Just pack the panel full of cunts," says some production bible, hot off the back of Don't Tell The Bride. "Mention Iraq, stand back and watch the fireworks."
"But, but, Piers Morgan and Joey Barton are just laughing stocks, aren't they? Nobody has any respect for anything they say – they're people that deal in Retweets, not serious discussion. Surely there's no place for these glorified Talk Sport presenters on the BBC's flagship political programme?", pipes up some old-timer.
Dimbleby says nothing, he knows which way the tide is turning. He hasn't got the fight left in him anymore. "Let 'em on. Maybe we'll get it trending," he says, secretly longing for the days of Heseltine and Foot.
As the show started I was reminded that once upon a time the "celebrity guests" were celebrities only to people with Morning Star subscriptions. Pugnacious trade unionists, NGO big dogs, Red Wedge-era pop stars like Billy Bragg and Paul Heaton, and the occasional professional Tory, like Tim Rice, or Jim Davidson or somebody else who hates paying taxes. Now, the stars seemed to be almost apolitical, just famous people with opinions on the NHS; they are arseholes with appearance fees.
It felt ugly and slightly pointless watching something which had obviously been drummed up for Twitter trends alone, but like a Tyson Fury fight, the hype was as tantalising as it was dumb. It seemed unlikely, but I held a small hope that Barton was going to stand up and do a Morgan-like Ousmane Dabo at some point.
Amazingly, giving a man who printed fabricated photos of torture to sell copies of his newspaper and a man who stubbed out a cigar in the face of a teenager wasn't enough for the BBC. They chose this moment to run out the freshly elected UKIP MEP, Louise Bours. Whoever chose this panel understands how to russle up some internet furore. Sadly though, they didn't understand that this week, of all weeks, UKIP's supporting cast deserved to have shit torn out of them by proper political adults, not cosy up to talent show hosts and footballers.
Taking place at Heathrow's soon to be opened Terminal 2, the proceedings took on a strange, almost Ballardian feel. Scenes from a daydream of suburban dystopia, in which democracy is conducted in the biggest space possible. QPR players have become political philosophers and a party who believe in re-legalising handguns and uniforms for taxi drivers have become a viable politcal force.
As Dimbleby respectfully made his way through the introductions, the looming figure of Piers Morgan flashed on screen like an early noughties acid flashback. He seemed like a calm, happy media robot, switched to Serious Mode. It's odd to think that a man who was the editor of a national newspaper at 29 would eventually become better known for cyber-bullying Michael Owen and handing out tissues to tearful soap stars, than – I dunno – campaigning against the War In Iraq, but therein lies the strange paradox of his career. A man who looked too far into the political abyss, and felt he should spend the rest of his career being a kind of English wanker for hire, being mocked by Americans and judging dog-based talent acts.
In America, he seems to fulfil the role of the slimey, limey redcoat who wants to take it back to 1774, and over here he's just a Butlins Redcoat determined to take British television back to 1974.
Barton wasn't giving much away either. As his name and profession were read out, he was reactionless. Even when Dimbleby referred to him as a philosopher. He seemed very much in the zone, perhaps the same kind of zone that led him to try and fight the entire Man City team, if his frown was anything to go by. With his slicked Widow's Peak and simmering gaze, he looked not unlike Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking, and perhaps he was one right now.
Predictably, the first question was about UKIP, and Morgan took on a surprisingly understanding, almost sympathetic tone. He was sympathising with us, the voters. Not only, he claimed, could voters more easily identify with Nigel Farage than "Mr Boring, Mr Weird and Mr Useless", as he put it, but Nigel was the kind of man who you could go to the pub with. Perhaps realising that he'd just spouted the most inane UKIP cliche imaginable, he continued surreally: "the kind of man who puts a pint on his head" – an action he helpfully demonstrated.
Morgan's assesment of UKIP is bullshit. Farage looks like the kind of man who drinks in pubs, where the landlord calls him "M'lord" and everyone wears those wafer thin tartan socks you can only buy in train stations. I think Piers has spent too long in America, and has a vision of Britain that's just as dated as Farage's.
By the way, I'm not sure when being the kind of person "you could go to the pub with" became the single most important political attribute. The people I go to the pub with are idiots.
Barton's take on the matter was that UKIP's success is due to a protest vote, and that they'd fall apart come a general election. A sensible point of view, which he sadly ruined with an impressive, and incongrous blast of old school sexism – straight out of the Ian Holloway school of analogies – telling UKIP's Louise Bours that the parties were "four ugly birds". He may be big on Twitter, but man J Bartz doesn't understand the #BBCQT crowd.
Bours, sensing a lynching afoot, decided to go for a Dorothy Parker moment – her witty, withering dagger in the side of the lumbering mysoginist monster. Alas, all she could come up with, was something about "footballers' brains being in their feet", which is pretty fucking poor, all things considered. Barton tried to retort, but his comeback was lame: some inaudible, embarrassed noise about how maybe they were, or something.
Call me a thuggish football fan, but I felt sorry for Barton. He was out of his environment, out of place and politically, out of this century. But can you blame a man who can put Alan Pardew, Harry Redknapp and Her Majesty's Prisons down as previous employers? Bastions of intersectional awareness they are not.
In the midst of all this nonsense, it was easy to forget the presence of the Rt Hon David Willetts – the ex minister for universities whose previous, post-tutition fees rise appearances on Question Time made you wonder if he'd somehow personally wronged the chief Tory Press Officer. The man least welcome at Britain's Student Unions (after Robin Thicke), got something of a free pass tonight. Like a petty thief sitting amongst war criminals.
But with Barton's tail between his legs, Morgan on best behaviour and the conversation not veering far from UKIP for a good half hour, the show began to lag. It was up to the audience to bring the ruckus. A squeaky voiced Little Hitler desperate to rid nearby Twickenham of Vince Cable provided some light relief, but in reality this wasn't the shit-flinging storm we were expecting.
It needed a spark, a conversation topic to divide ranks again. Enter Iraq: The failsafe, omnipresent ideological conundrum which still raises tempers. The issue is not so much a national debate as it is a rotting corpse in the middle of a party that nobody wants to deal with.
But when the mandatory Iraq question did arrive, the results were uncontroversial. Morgan was mannered, Barton out of his depth. I got the impression that this was the moment the producers were waiting for, but really, were Barton and Morgan ever going to feud over something as clearly terrible as Iraq?
And were they going to say they despised Romanians with an ancient passion? Or that they thought Rolf Harris should be let off the hook for his services to animals? Of course they weren't. Barton had already dropped a massive clanger, but it was a mistake, a slip of an unrefined tongue, and who would an ex-tabloid editor be to bollock him for that? The producers were aiming for the Wrestlemania of political discourse, but instead ended up with a staff room debate between a couple of heads of department and a brash new P.E. teacher. Galloway vs Paxman, it was not.
In fact, the liveliest it ever got was when Barton and Morgan faced off over the issue of Airport Expansion. Fucking airport expansion.
As the show began to finish up, and Dimbleby kindly invited the people of Llandudno and King's Lynn to roll up and come on down to see the Democracy Roadshow in their hometown, I began to wonder about the state of British political discourse. Who won between Morgan and Barton was irrelevant; the showdown had been a non-event. Barton was louder but fucked up more, Morgan was quieter but was atypically sensible. It didn't really matter by now.
I wondered where we've got to as a society, when politics is essentially being repackaged as ideological prizefighting, with the likes of Morgan, Barton, Owen Jones, Mehdi Hassan, Katie Hopkins, et al willing to enter the ring and bludgeon some sweating politicians. A lot has been written about the nature of obverse journalism, but Question Time isn't even that. It's just people trying to pick holes in each other's arguments and then go for dinner afterwards – a frivolous debating society for the Twitterati to boo and hiss at from behind the red button.
I've still got a lot of time for QT, but a part of me wonders how far we are away from Paddy Power putting odds on who'll mention Tony Blair and in which minute. It doesn't really appear to be about democracy anymore, it's just another platform for the entitled few. It's Twitter basically: the blue ticks sit at the front and largely ignore the mass throwing questions their way. Of course it does deal with important questions in an entertaining manner, but ultimately, it only ever makes news when a Tory squirms or a celebrity chokes. I mean, not even Mr Saturday Night himself, Piers Morgan could lift this episode into the stratosphere.
Maybe QT should try and be a little more Chomsky and a little less Cowell.
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