A few years ago I used to spend the early part of most Thursday evenings having a few looseners with a work colleague of mine. As it got to about 10pm I'd make a statement to the effect of "four pints is plenty on a schoolnight and besides which, I'd best get home for Question Time". It became a running joke between the two of us, his wisecracks on the subject reaching their zenith when he speculated that I had a picture of 'my hero' David Dimbleby on my bedroom wall. For the record I stopped having 'heroes' in the true sense at some point in my late 20s and will speculate that no such poster exists. If I'm wrong then the owners of this poster have my deepest sympathy.
Question Time is packaged to the viewer as a sober, serious and high brow political discussion programme which seeks to explore 'issues of the day' and, through a wide range of opinions on the panel, present the various angles, perspective and points of view from which an answer to that question can be approached, while hopefully touching upon some of the nuances and 'grey areas' along the way. Audience participation and the presence of journalists, authors, actors, musicians or comedians on the panel give the show an 'everyman' feel, presenting it as a live and dangerous form of real pluralism, a 'democracy in action' sort of thing.
Regular viewers will be familiar with the format but just in case you aren't:- a member of the audience (which is supposed to represent 'the general public') asks a question relating to something that has been in the news that week, be it Brexit, something to do with the health service, a political scandal or whatever. The (usually five) panelists then take it in turns to wax lyrical on the subject, sometimes with them interrupting and arguing with each other. This is interspersed with comments from 'the public', with Dimblebore sometimes asking specifically for contributions 'for' or 'against' the motion if the collective response is becoming somewhat one-sided.
Now I used to watch this show with some regularity, but not because I find it interesting or come away from it with a greater understanding of any issue than I had previously. Seeing strong and independent-minded good panelists are as rare as rocking horse shit, the useful function of Question Time is to tell us what our lords and masters have decreed we should all be talking about, as well as how apparently intelligent, sensible and reasonable 'mainstream people' are tackling these issues. It's worth asking whether Question Time is genuinely the sort of open and informative piece of broadcasting it pertains to be, or something altogether more limiting and dull.
The first thing to consider is that the audience for the show is not a cross-section of the public at all but a highly stratified, deliberately filtered crowd consisting overwhelmingly as it does of political activists and card-carrying party members. Anyone who has ever been a member of a political party will know that as a general rule, 'politically active' people approach most questions from a completely different starting point and use a lexicon that would be unrecognisable to someone like you chewing the fat with someone like me over a beer. The 'informed apolitical' are typically dangerous mavericks, and the BBC's application process for the show deliberately flushes them out.
But leaving that aside, once the question has been chipped up what follows is a sort of intellectual free-for all, with nothing off limits in the couldron of ideas, right? Er...hardly. In reality two rather predictable and bland 'sides' emerge on a 'by numbers' basis, with it typically being 3-2 or occasionally 4-1 on the panel in favour of one 'side' or the other. As a result, panelists regularly repeat or spend copious amounts of time agreeing with each other, with the audience being no better and very frequently even worse. A typical QT 'discussion' that lasts 20 minutes could very easily be nailed in about one tenth of that time with precisely zero value lost.
While this appeals to the 'Punch and Judy' element that many viewers tune in for, this format is by nature highly restrictive on any sort of intellectual level. The show sets a) the questions we are all 'supposed' to be interested in the answers to, b) the sides/arguments in relation to those questions and c) the parameters within which discussion is allowed to take place. Dimblebore might ask for an 'upper' or 'downer' from the audience but have you ever heard him request the thoughts of someone who disagrees with the premise of the question, thinks the whole thing is a phoney bone of contention or that both 'sides' are wrong in their own way? Of course not - that would be dangerous.
Wondering what the hell I'm on about? Let me give you two really good examples, namely LGBT 'issues' and drugs.
The parameters of the LGBT 'debate' have prohibited the expression of any view that might be construed as homophobic for many years now, so the 'anti' view typically takes the form of promoting something else in its place, namely male-female marriage with a view to raising 'stable families' and 'traditional values' as a foundation of society - you know the drill. Equally the 'diversity' side of the argument is not exactly a googly either with its appeals for new laws against homophobic 'hate crimes', some new 'right' that probably isn't a civil right at all, the championing of LGBT in 'competing rights issues' and a desire to 'change social attitudes', by force if necessary.
Now anybody possessed of an independent and functioning brain can surely dismiss this as a phoney bone of contention. The long and short of the issue is that it's no business of the State which consenting adults are going out with, marrying or having sex with each other, nor is it a legitimate function of the State to 'manage' the reaction of person C to the lifestyle choices, marriage, civil partnership or whatever of Person A and Person B (if that reaction crosses the line into violence, incitement to or threats of then this has always been illegal). Both 'sides' on this feed a highly disempowering notion that without the approval of others for our choices, we are basically nothing.
With the drugs question, the two current 'sides' can best be summed up in a word as criminalise and medicalise. The 'criminalise' side are effectively the real life manifestation of Mr Mackey from South Park, constantly reminding us all that "drugs are bad m'kay?". Meanwhile the current mainstream ostensibly pro-drugs stance is to regard all drugtakers as 'poor addicts' and their vice as a 'medical issue', for which potential treatments might include 'shooting galleries' at which the 'addicts' would be given subsidised heroin on demand. I can see it now - the National Smack Service, free at the point of use, based on need and not your ability to pay. Beveridge would be proud.
And the voice of sanity? Look, I couldn't care less which mind-altering drugs you take and am also aware that the overwhelming majority of drug users do not become addicted, dependent or anything resembling either. They aren't 'ill' by any stretch of the imagination and people suggesting otherwise should knock it off. While anyone should be free to get mashed however they want, they are also individually responsible for not committing crime to procure drugs or while on drugs (criminalisers often conflate drugtaking itself with crimes committed to raise funds or while under the influence). By this reasoning "I'm a poor addict" or "because I got high" will not be accepted as an excuse.
And...who on Questionable Time have you ever heard pushing that rational argument?
One of the reasons I started listening to rather than watching the show was because I got tired of screaming at the television upon realising that yet again both 'sides' were full of it. Whether it's just lazy 'television by numbers' or a more sinister form of brainwashing, there's an overt stroking of the ego allied to a subtle numbing of the mind, the invitation to the viewer of this 'high brow' stuff to believe themselves more well-informed than the average punter while passing tired conventional wisdom off as genuine insight. Opinions outside this 'safe range' presented by the mainstream can then be dismissed as mad, bad and dangerous with a smug, warm and all-knowing glow.
There is a place for the exploration of serious issues amongst all of us (certainly beyond the realm of the political establishment), but something as limited and limiting as Question Time has surely outlived its usefulness, assuming it ever had any at all. Funnily enough I was recently watching some old episodes of 'After Dark', a late night discussion programme on Channel 4 in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 'After Dark' comprised mainly of journalists and people from the public eye but was an open house with nothing off limits, no 'set arguments' and no 'upper' and 'downer' sides - hell, it didn't even have a specified time limit and went into some real depth about serious issues.
Unsurprisingly it was canned - but I would welcome something like that back in a heartbeat.
Anyway, feel free to use the above as a rough guide in your navigation of tomorrow's Question Time - just try not to get too excited if you can avoid it.
I'm off to apply to be in the audience (under an assumed name, naturally) so I'll leave you with some music and catch you next time - thanks for reading.