Is Question Time losing its edge?

The Economist's senior editor Anne McElvoy wants to know why honest answers and proper arguments rarely make an appearance on the BBC's topical debate programme

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Ah, late Thursday night and the opportunity to watch the political class under fire from local audiences around Britain and fellow panellists. The new series of BBC’s Question Time should be a treat. I am a lifelong devotee, watching the show long before I was ever asked to sit round that purple-fronted curved desk – which feels horribly like an exam when you sit down and the music starts.

QT was what we now call appointment-to-view TV in my family. It reflected our divisions, likes and aversions. “I’m so sorry your parents had that row,” said a teenage guest staying the night after an eventful show had left the McElvoy clan arguing well after midnight. “We do that every Thursday!” we chorused.

Recently, it’s become harder to maintain a sense of fresh, uninhibited argument. Too often the show sags under the weight of all too familiar political commonplaces, delivered as if by rote by the panel’s politicians. As soon as we hear the dreary words, “Let me be clear, David…” or “I was getting to the point” after two minutes of self-serving waffle, we run for the kettle.

Nicky Morgan, a cabinet minister, for heaven’s sake, couldn’t muster a semi-opinion on whether or not we should remain in the EU when she appeared in May. “We’re still having the debate,” she droned.

So, I’d beg Mr Dimbleby to press even harder on those – like Labour’s Stella Creasy in a magnificent  piece of avoidance on immigration numbers – who resort to lines like, “The debate needs be reset.” Well, go and re-set it then – by giving us your answer.

Panellists relying on briefings rather their intuition and experience and a dependence on the party line that won’t seem out of in place in the Chinese Central Committee are the bane of programmes like these – and we should all be noisier in denouncing that.

Before they appear on the programme, ministers take hours out of their diary to prepare a raft of answers to possible questions with their advisers. I remember one junior minister in the green room who had laid out sheaves of lines-to-take (ie safe answers) on piles of paper. I enjoyed having a tussle on the show with Jeremy Corbyn over Syria earlier this year, precisely because his views are absolutely contrary to mine – and he says so, without resorting to pre-digested notes. 

Audiences hunger for authenticity, which is why Nigel Farage is the most invited political guest. But there is another conundrum, and it arises from an overly constricted view of what BBC impartiality means. It’s no secret that the programme seeks clashes and clarity – and if politicians can’t provide it, the task falls to comedians and commentators (my Radio 4 Moral Maze colleague Melanie Phillips is the most frequently asked columnist on the show).

Very well. But in search of a noisy left-right split, they do seem to struggle with people who have a mix of views – not at all uncommon these days. If you are quite liberal on immigration, but sceptical about the EU’s integration, or largely pro free market and state reform, but appalled by lack of social mobility, you neither tick the box as a fully-fledged Nigel Farage-ist “anti” everything, nor are you sufficiently “pro” a group of attitudes somewhere on a check-list. Balance is important, but serendipity and a sense of independent thought is something editors might bear in mind a bit more.

Today’s politics are more varied than at any time I can remember since my teenage days shouting back at the screen as the great ideological clashes of the 1980s raged. That needs to shine through if the BBC’s debate flagship is to shine on in different, even more unpredictable times. 

Question Time is on Thursdays at 10.35pm on BBC1