BBC’s Question Time is the august broadcaster’s self-described ‘flagship political debate programme’.
It is also—how to put this delicately?—an absolutely shoddy disgrace. A demented chorus of out of tune violins and busted up cellos screeching out a desperate tune on the deck of the perforated vessel that is the good ship Tory Britain. In this, Question Time is representative of the BBC’s political coverage as a whole.
Question Time is, like the BBC overall, ostensibly all about ‘balance’. That’s their mission statement, and their great myth. That they are an ‘impartial broadcaster’, an oasis of clear and unbiased news amidst a wasteland of propaganda and distortion.
In reality, and despite the extreme right-wing press’ frequent attempts to paint it as an outlet of liberal bias, the BBC skews quite cartoonishly to the right of the spectrum. Quite contrary in fact to its much propagated image as an independent, impartial broadcaster, the BBC is tied heavily to the government and embedded deeply within the establishment power structures of the nation. As Tom Mills, journalist and author of ‘BBC: Myth of a Public Service’ put it:
[I]t is important to state from the outset what is rarely acknowledged in discussions about the BBC: that it isn’t independent from governments, let alone from the broader Establishment. The BBC has always been formally accountable to ministers for its operations. Governments set the terms under which it operates, they appoint its most senior figures, who in future will be directly involved in day-to-day managerial decision making, and they set the level of the licence fee, which is the BBC’s major source of income. So that’s the context within which the BBC operates, and it hardly amounts to independence in any substantive sense.
I think the most straightforward way of putting this is that the BBC will aim to fairly and accurately reflect the balance of opinion amongst elites [my emphasis]. In that respect it’s not so different to other reputable media organisations. But a number of studies suggest the range of opinion on the BBC is narrower than some of its rivals. Channel 4 News tends, I think, to have a broader range of perspectives, and the recent Media Reform Coalition’s report on the coverage of Corbyn found that the BBC gave much more airtime to Corbyn’s opponents than ITV.
This right-wing, elite-friendly bias manifests itself in innumerable ways on the BBC. It is quite clearly visible on This Week, another of the channel’s main political programmes. This Week would probably like to describe itself as something like a ‘sensible, clear-eyed political roundtable.’ Once again the disparity between the propagated image and the dismal reality is profound. This Week is hosted by Andrew Neil, one of the powerhouses of the British media class, who holds a number of important positions within those circles. Neil is an almost comically right-wing presence, yet he has had immense sway over the steering of the BBC vessel over the years. The warped logic of this for an ostensibly ‘impartial broadcaster’ was pointed out by journalist and author Owen Jones:
Imagine this. The BBC appoints a prominent radical leftist, a lifelong Bennite, the chairman of the publisher of a prominent leftwing publication no less, as its flagship political presenter and interviewer. This person has made speeches in homage of Karl Marx calling for the establishment of full-blooded socialism in Britain, including a massive increase in public ownership, hiking taxes on the rich to fund a huge public investment programme, and reversing anti-union laws. They appear on our “impartial” Auntie Beeb wearing a tie emblazoned with the logo of a hardline leftist thinktank. Their BBC editor is a former Labour staffer who moves to become Jeremy Corbyn’s communications chief. They use their Twitter feed - where they have amassed hundreds of thousands of followers thanks to a platform handed to them by the BBC - to promote radical leftist causes.
This would never happen. It is unthinkable, in fact. If the BBC establishment somehow entered this parallel universe, the British press would be on the brink of insurrection. And yet, the strange case of Andrew Neil, the ultra-Thatcherite former Sunday Times editor who is the BBC’s flagship political presenter, is an instructive example about how our media works.
That, then, is the BBC. The ‘liberal-leaning, impartial broadcaster’ of the nation.
Welcome to the Tory hellscape that is Britain’s media: A closed, insular world overwhelmingly made up of upper class white men who attained their positions by virtue of connection and wealth rather than merit.
Hey, wanna see something funny? Check this out:
Fair enough, like. Gotta be transparent I suppose. Sounds quite sinister too. ‘Funded by the Russian government’. It might be a bit of a logistical stretch to do the same for private channels and their funding streams—though I would contest, logically sound—but for state broadcasters I guess it’s easy enough. I guess the BBC is then ‘funded by the British government’ too?
(Sure you do, Guaidó, mate. Sure you do. All those lovely CIA people.)
Aww. ‘Public broadcast service’. Sounds fluffy. High-minded. Responsible and necessary. Serving the people. Much better than that dastardly ‘Russian government-funded thing’.
Anyway apart from being hosted by right-wing gargoyle Andrew Neil, This Week generally also stacks its sticky political sofa with pundits that could also be fairly described as ‘somewhat to the right’. Case in point: Michael Portillo, who has sat on that sofa since 2003. Who is Michael (Denzil Xavier) Portillo? Wiki tells it so beautifully succinctly:
‘[A] former Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister of the Conservative Party. A strong admirer of Margaret Thatcher, and a Eurosceptic, Portillo served as a junior minister under both Thatcher and John Major, before entering the cabinet in 1992. A “darling of the right”, he was seen as a likely challenger to Major during the 1995 Conservative leadership election, but stayed loyal. As Defence Secretary, he pressed for a purist Thatcherite course of “clear blue water”, separating the policies of the Conservatives from those of the Labour Party
Now, to be fair to This Week, one of its other main long-time guests was Diane Abbott. Abbott is a left-wing Labour MP and current Shadow Home Secretary under Jeremy Corbyn. To be even more fair, other guests have over the years included people like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Chris Leslie, Harriet Harman, Chuka Umunna, Esther McVey, Jess Phillips, Liz Kendall, Alastair Campbell—a good mix of Labour, and Tory, yet all on the spectrum between ‘pretty right-wing’ to ‘ghoulish Victorian workhouse fantasists’. This Week is, thankfully, being put out of its misery this year. Historian-of-the-moment Rutger Bregman, who made mince meat out of Tucker Carlson recently, appeared on the show yesterday. Here is his account of his experience:
1. Last night, I was invited to be on the BBC show ‘This Week’. I thought that Davos was a bewildering experience, but this beat everything.— Rutger Bregman (@rcbregman) March 22, 2019
2. A bit more background on how incredibly stupid the show really is. First they invite you to talk about your book, and pretend to be really interested in your ideas.— Rutger Bregman (@rcbregman) March 22, 2019
3. Then they ask: ‘Can you make a statement about the European Union?’— Rutger Bregman (@rcbregman) March 22, 2019
⁰Me: ‘No. That’s not my expertise.’ ⁰
Producer: ‘Can you say something about the terrorist attack in Utrecht?’⁰
Me: ‘No, that’s not my expertise. Didn’t you invite me to talk about my book?’
4. Producer: ‘Yes, we want to get into that. But what do you think about Brexit?’— Rutger Bregman (@rcbregman) March 22, 2019
A couple of hours before the show, they want you to do a video of 2 minutes in which you have to summarise all your ideas. (‘And can you say something about Brexit please?’).
5. When you arrive at the studio, you quickly find out that nobody has actually read your book. The producer, the presenter - they all couldn’t care less. They don’t even have a copy.— Rutger Bregman (@rcbregman) March 22, 2019
6. The show starts. They play the badly edited video, after which three right-wing dinosaurs - two of them politicians from the Stone Age - start teaming up on you. Clearly, not one of them has read a page of your book.— Rutger Bregman (@rcbregman) March 22, 2019
7. They make up facts about inequality (‘hasn’t grown’) and the economy (‘never been better’). They change the subject every 10 seconds. They hardly let you finish a sentence. Then it’s over.— Rutger Bregman (@rcbregman) March 22, 2019
8. This was the worst experience I’ve had with UK media, but after quite a few interviews in different countries, I think I can say that, on average, British journalists are the least curious of all. So often, being ‘critical’ is just a pose.— Rutger Bregman (@rcbregman) March 22, 2019
9. Many are not really engaging with the questions. For example, compare this interview I did with the genuinely curious Trevor Noah in the U.S (https://t.co/yUzA1Y1Ktt), with this interview on BBC Newsnight (https://t.co/9W04WpXobR).— Rutger Bregman (@rcbregman) March 22, 2019
10. The good news: there are new media in the UK filling the gap. Smartest questions (and best criticisms) I got this week were from Aaron Bastani of @novaramedia - a tiny startup with really smart, young journalists. https://t.co/k6xjf7Mkv0 [the end]— Rutger Bregman (@rcbregman) March 22, 2019
And so we circle back to Question Time. This Week’s right-wing buffoonery is made to look positively Marxist when compared to the blasted purgatory that is Question Time. Question Time is not a roundtable. As its name suggests it is instead a panel discussion with heavy audience participation. You would think that, following the BBC’s stated mission and image, both panel and audience on the show would be a healthy balance of political viewpoints.
Let’s go back to Diane Abbott for a second. Abbott is a quite extraordinary woman. Born into a working class British-Jamaican family, Abbott went to Cambridge and subsequently became, alongside Bernie Grant and Paul Boateng, Britain’s first black MP. She is the longest serving black MP in the House of Commons and she has represented her constituency since 1987. She has also put up with an unimaginably foul and unceasing torrent of sexist and racist abuse, such that would make a statue wither.
We tracked 25,688 abusive tweets sent to women MPs - half were directed at Diane Abbott https://t.co/fY1f6lWtUF— Diane Abbott (@HackneyAbbott) September 5, 2017
Yet despite this Abbott has stood firm, refusing to bow down to lesser people who would see her brought low, instead continuing the fight for social and economic justice, her humanity and her warmth shining through like sunbeams.
Civil disobedience has been used for centuries to challenge injustice. The Stanstead 15's campaign against brutal charter flight deportations was simply another example of this. These unprecedented terrorism charges were a threat to our right to protesthttps://t.co/NUM4oWTOND— Diane Abbott (@HackneyAbbott) February 6, 2019
The Govts decision to reject an independent review into Orgreave is a disgrace. Labour in government will not allow this injustice to continue. We will hold a proper inquiry into what happened at Orgreave https://t.co/ENisBa8UwA— Diane Abbott (@HackneyAbbott) March 5, 2019
We stand with @jeremycorbyn because only he has the will & programme to transform Britain and #Endausterity & he has always opposed the Tories' callous, inhumane cuts.— Labour Assembly (@labourassembly) February 28, 2019
Hit RT if you back @JeremyCorbyn4PM ↓#IStandWithJeremyCorbyn pic.twitter.com/0w6Ife27Gz
And here is how the BBC treats Diane Abbott when she appears on Question Time:
Abbott’s mistreatment at the hands of six-figure-earning programme chair Fiona Bruce and the right-wing panel was not limited to bad-data-based interruption, or condescending mockery. Abbott made a formal complaint about her treatment on the show, with The Guardian reporting:
The Labour politician claimed she had been unfairly mocked in the warm-up and had been interrupted more often than other panellists by Fiona Bruce, the programme’s new chair.
“We are appalled by the treatment of Diane Abbott on BBC’s Question Time,” a spokesperson for Abbott said. “It was clear that a hostile atmosphere was whipped up, propped up by reports of inappropriate and sexist commentary in the audience warm-up session.
“A public broadcaster like the BBC should be expected to be a model of impartiality and equality. The BBC cannot claim anything of the sort when analysis of the programme shows that the only black woman on the panel was jeered at and interrupted more times than any other panellist, including by the chair herself.
“The media must stop legitimising mistreatment, bias and abuse against Ms Abbott as a black woman in public life. The BBC should be ashamed that their programming is complicit in such behaviour.”
Audience members who attended the filming of Question Time in Derby claimed that the warm-up for the programme included innuendo about Abbott’s past relationship with Jeremy Corbyn and that the audience booed her name when it was announced.
An incredibly revealing look at the hateful axis of classism, racism, and sexism that is the reality for many in a country that likes to project an polite and genteel image of itself abroad, and an attitude alive and well at the BBC.
Yes quite aside from consistently stacking its panels with right-wing figures, Question Time has also repeatedly been accused of filling out its audience with people of the same political persuasion, occasionally even lining up active right-wing activists to ask questions.
Add this to clear audience selection bias & it is now irrefutable that the programme team deliberately flouts BBC and Ofcom guidelines. Action from BBC management essential..Question Time’s independence questions reveal a sinister pattern | The National https://t.co/Q4KgifCWjZ— Michael Russell (@Feorlean) February 8, 2019
Apparently the far-right supporting #bbcqt Audience Producer Alison Fuller-Pendley is also working on the new ScottishQT show & surprise surprise far-right sectarian Billy boy here is featuring in the first episode as a 'casual' member of the audience.— Roger Anderson (@Rog_Anderson) February 9, 2019
IMV this is institutional. pic.twitter.com/CBhvXfAiSO
Oh it gets better, at least three of the people who asked questions weren't just Tory activists, they were local Tory council candidates https://t.co/x9gfhOa7YK— Owen Jones🌹 (@OwenJones84) March 10, 2019
The tally keeps going up. Four of the people who asked questions on Question Time last week in Dudley were local Conservative activists. pic.twitter.com/HinI5zBhD4— Owen Jones🌹 (@OwenJones84) March 10, 2019
This is getting silly. Here's number five, the husband of a Conservative councillor who is Dudley's Spokesperson for Health and Wellbeing. pic.twitter.com/TVlycSZj5P— Owen Jones🌹 (@OwenJones84) March 10, 2019
The BBC say that there were activists from both main parties. But so far we've established that five Tory activists asked questions, let alone sat in the audience - and @DudleyLabGroup tell me there was only one Labour member there that they're aware of. https://t.co/nzniPeXqeX— Owen Jones🌹 (@OwenJones84) March 10, 2019
This is a very good question from a local Labour councillor in Dudley. https://t.co/OiuOTo6urB— Owen Jones🌹 (@OwenJones84) March 10, 2019
And so now here we stand, at the end result of an internal Tory party squabble that has led to a vicious, cruel, and stubborn Tory Prime Minister willing to position us on the threshold of a no-deal crash exit from the European Union. It doesn’t matter where you stand on the issue of the EU. I myself as a socialist am profoundly sceptical of the neoliberal nature of the supranational beast. What matters is that Britain is currently in an incredible mess, and it is a mess created, exacerbated, and owned entirely by the Tory party. You wouldn’t know that from the state of the British media though of course, as they much prefer to make everything about the perceived shortcomings of the opposition. All fingers point to the people trying to desperately pull us out from underneath the guillotine, rather than the people who built it and put us there in the first place. My full take on that is a post for another time. For now I feel a rising tide of bile in my throat after documenting the absolute joke that is the BBC’s political coverage, and so I will leave you with an antidote. A 16 year old girl, who slipped through the ideological net and appeared on Question Time this week, and who provided the best and clearest and most concise example of political analysis that has appeared on the BBC this year. Take it away Amelia:
I look horrendous lol but this is me, guess I’m on Twitter now👋 https://t.co/XuM0oJHcAa— amelia🌹 (@ameliamcd_) March 21, 2019
‘David Cameron made the referendum policy because he didn’t want to risk losing 10 or 15 seats to UKIP and look where it has got us’— BBC Question Time (@bbcquestiontime) March 21, 2019
This 16-year-old says the Conservative Party are responsible for Brexit. #bbcqt pic.twitter.com/JaylXz1XF2
Amelia on Question Time. Greta Thunberg at the UN. The future is female.
Image sources (in order of posting): Twitter, YouTube