Tag Archives: Question Time

Questioning Question Time – how can the media engage young voters?

Following on from Journalism.co.uk’s coverage of the City University London event on the role of new media in the forthcoming UK election, Elizabeth Davies reviews BBC3’s special Question Time programme for young voters and asks: what can the media, both old and new, do to engage young voters? This post is also featured on her blog.

My name’s Elizabeth, and when this General Election eventually rolls around, I will be a first-time voter. I’m able to say this as if I’m a member of a support group because, quite frankly, I am. The Electoral Commission warned on Wednesday that more than half of 17-25-year-olds are not on the electoral register, paving the way for us to be considered a demographic desperately in need of some political prodding.

Of course, one way to do this is through sensible use of the media. Young voters need to be persuaded to shake off their political torpor, let alone demonstrate some enthusiasm, in a way that neither patronises nor pigeonholes them. As a journalist and young voter myself, I was intrigued to see how BBC3’s First Time Voters’ Question Time aired last night would tackle the issue.

The first depressing sign of what was to follow was the fact that the programme aired at the same time as the England vs Egypt match on ITV1. It doesn’t take a political genius to figure out that such a programming conflict means you’re probably preaching to the converted. A quick glance at the audience confirmed that. The vast majority, if not all, will probably turn up at their polling stations the minute they open.

The three parties selected their youngest and most telegenic representatives – which they considered in this case to be David Lammy, Jeremy Hunt and Julia Goldsworthy – while BBC3 stuck them on a panel with three others who they thought might be able to engage with the “youth”: Rory Bremner, Tim-from-the-first-series-of-the-Apprentice and… Jamelia. I wasn’t the only Twitter user who wondered if she’d wandered on to the wrong programme.

Over the course of an hour the audience managed to whine about politicians’ failure to talk about important policies and then illustrate, with the help of BBC3’s question selector, that what they cared about politically was failing to land a high-paying job the minute they graduated, celebrities, and indie music. Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Occasionally panellists and audience members did edge towards something resembling real political debate. But, as a rule, this special version of Question Time managed to both patronise and pigeonhole those of us who grew up under New Labour. That’s some feat.

Perhaps you have to give BBC3 points for trying – but those points don’t really count for very much when they’re unlikely to spur even one of those young people into making sure they’re registered to vote. As an attempt, it was pretty feeble. Nick Robinson may consider social media “self-important and narcissistic tosh”, but as we all know, 17-25 years are narcissistic and self-important. Yes, we got a Twitter account whose name was occasionally flashed up on screen, but what about a hashtag so we could debate these issues? What about the Twitter names of the panellists so the conversation could be taken wider than the studio? What about some kind of attempt to engage with Facebook given that we are, supposedly, the “Facebook generation”? What about – God forbid – an actual webpage for the programme where specific information about party policies can be posted and discussed?

Time and time again Barack Obama was held up as a shining example of a politician who got the youth excited because he talked about the issues and also let his true personality shine through in a way untainted by spin or the media. This demonstrated successfully that it isn’t only young people, but the programme’s panellists, who fail to read the news properly. Gordon Brown and David Cameron will take to the podium for the much-vaunted leaders’ debates schooled in the finest of the Obama arts, from those who know them best – Obama’s own advisers.

In the end, it may be up to those leaders’ debates and the media discussion around them to push voters of all ages towards showing an interest in the political future of their country. Yes, I do worry about the “Americanisation” of British politics the leaders’ debates and the subsequent exertions of party spin machines could create. But it may take that kind of wall-to-wall exposure to grab people’s attentions. In the final five minutes of the show, one of the audience members made the only sensible comment of the entire hour: you can complain all you want about politicians failing to lay out their policies, but young people need to show some initiative and actually go out to look for them. Journalists have a responsibility to be the vessel for that search, and to make it far more than a token gesture.

Young voters should not march themselves down to a polling station purely for the sake of it. But if the media considers carefully how it can grab their attention in an adult and informed manner, then it will do them, and the country, a huge service. And, you never know – it might just win itself a vital generation of new followers at the same time.

Behind the scenes at BBC’s Question Time

For a little over 30 years, BBC panel show Question Time has been at the centre of controversial debate in the UK. But how do they do it? What goes on behind the set week in week out? I got the chance to speak with the programme’s director Rob Hopkin, who gave me an insight into the secret of producing a show like Question Time.

According to the the Question Time website, the heart of the programme is its audience. “We don’t invite anyone” said Hopkin. “We have a dedicated producer who chooses a representative audience that reflects the demographic length. It is an honestly picked audience.” Every week audience producer Alison Fuller has to select the audience and, depending on the city they are in, this can mean considering more than 4,000 applications. This process involves checking the background of every applicant against their political affiliations, campaign involvements, advertising intentions, and many other factors.

As the 150 people she selects are intended to embody the image of their city in the eyes of the programme’s nationwide audience, her job is one of the most important for the programme’s production.

Those selected to appear in the audience are invited to arrive at 6:00pm, but the programme records from 8:30pm to 9.30pm. This gives them over two hours of waiting. So what happens while they wait?

“When the audience turns up we give them tea and biscuits and they go through the whole process, but most importantly of all, we give them pens and paper and little cards for them to write their questions on,” explained Hopkin. “While they are waiting, we show them BBC’s News at Six, the ITV’s 6.30pm News and Channel 4’s 7:00pm news. It is very important that people ask questions about what is in the news that day.”

Hopkin described the question selection process: “Most of the questions are selected on the day. All the pieces of card with the questions are brought to the editorial team and they just separate the good questions from the not so good ones, and they end up with about eight to ten questions. But we won’t have time for that; we might have time for five or six. And often there are questions which are very good but on the same topic, so we might have two questions on the same topic. But we need to have extras, just in case.”

Asked about the origin of the questions, Hopkin stressed that they come from no-one but the audience: “This is the crucial thing because we are always being accused of telling the audience what questions to ask. People think that what we do is take our questions, give them to the audience, and get them to read them out. But that absolutely does not happen.

“Doing that would undermine the whole premise, and what’s the point in that? The programme is absolutely upfront, it does what it says on the package: this is the audience asking questions to the politicians.

“The other thing that we are accused of is that we have told the politicians what the questions are. I can guarantee we do not do that. They sit there and they do not know what the audience is going to ask. […] You can see that, and we are here to expose and to reveal things by getting a slightly more honest response from people.”

This approach gives the programme a journalistic edge, with every member of the editorial team having years of experience behind them. The average age of these “very sharp cookies”, as Hopkin describes them, is in the early 30s.

The production team, roughly 50 strong, is also made up of very experienced staff. “To achieve the right level of technical expertise you have to have the confidence in operating this heavy equipment as quickly as we ask them to,” said Hopkin, “you can’t put fairly young or inexperienced people in; they’ve got to have some years of being in control of things and be prepared to put independent thought into it.”

Although the show is not live, the production team has less than an hour after they finish recording before the show goes on air. This means there is not time for serious editing. All the team can do is crop bits of film here and there, taking into account legal matters and the audience’s emotions when talking to camera.

Hopkin explained: “I’ve had conversations with experienced journalists who have watched Question Time but never seen it in operation, and they say: ‘Well you must do an awful lot of post-production and editing’ and I say: ‘No, it goes out as we record it. We record it and send it, and that’s it.’ They say: ‘But you must do a lot of edits to tighten the sound up’ and I say: ‘No, there’s never high end tie, because the boom mikes have a spotter, who’s watching and saying: ‘That person it’s pointing to, the person up here, that’s green mike’, and green mike says: ‘That’s me’. When David says ‘Gentlemen on the front row of the back…’ he’s already there.

“So the person says ‘Oh yes, I’d like to ask so and so…’ and that way the system works. It’s a technique and a process that’s been honed over 30 years of this programme.”

On the set, a simple count reveals four spotters with boom mikes and eight cameramen. One of these is the steady cam, which needs another member of the team to carry the wires. “Given timing, for my role as the director, I can’t direct and call every shot,” confesses Hopkin. “What happens is that they all know the areas they can cover from where they operate, and they know the kind of shots they can get, and they know the programme so well that when somebody starts to speak they immediately offer the shot. So my job becomes one of saying, ‘That’s lovely. Thank you very much indeed, I’ll take that’ or ‘No, I won’t have that’. It’s more selection than direction. You don’t have to drive this crew, the crew are very safely driving themselves.”

During their two rehearsals they check the mikes and the shots over and over again. They even do a mock question, with the panel and David Dimbleby, right before they start shooting, adding up to a staggering three rehearsals and many more checks. Being a show with little or no script, where people are brought together to argue their views and get their answers, it might seem quite impossible to keep an audience of 150 and a panel of 5 strongly opinionated personalities together, but Hopkin very calmly says: “That’s all David’s work. He’s the chairman and he’s responsible for them.”

The show runs in a different city every week, produced out of the six trucks it travels with, as there’s no Question Time headquarters except for production offices in Oxford, London and Scotland.

I ask Rob if the travelling can get too much, but he shrugs it off:  “Oh I don’t travel for over 30 weeks. You come up and you do the show, and then you go back home.” It’s a busy schedule, but to him it’s just another job: “I have lots of other things to do; this is just a day a week.”

What format for the political leaders’ TV debates?

So what format will the first televised leaders’ debates take?

The Guardian today reports that, amid lengthy negotiations, “some of the parties, notably the Liberal Democrats, have been pressing for a BBC Question Time format in which questions are not just asked by an experienced chairman, but also by the audience”.

And it sounds like the BBC host David Dimbleby would prefer something more Question Time, than his Sky News counterpart Adam Boulton.

In an interview with the Independent’s Ian Burrell, Boulton said:

Some of the print comment is seeing this as a bear pit, you will have the leaders and set the audience on them in a kind of Question Time. Certainly my vision is that it will be a very different thing from that.

The problem with those shows is that sometimes you get a common view emerging from the panel – or in the case of Nick Griffin, the panel and the question master and the audience all against one person.

Well, if we get a group thing from the three leaders it will be a disaster. The point is to get them to differentiate themselves from each other in front of the audience rather than circle the wagons against the audience.

But Dimbleby, speaking on BBC Radio 4 Front Row on 26 January, said that he’d like to see an element of Question Time, if not the “whole hog”:

[Listen to interview here]

(…) I would certainly favour – not going the whole hog of Question Time and having a kind of mixed audience asking questions – but the kind of thing you could do – I don’t say it will happen – is to divide the audience into three groups so the viewer knows exactly who they are: Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour and allow those people perhaps to put the occasional question, or applaud (…)  somehow we’ve got to get it beyond the sterility of the American debate, or people will be bored by it and it will be a pity.

Stirring things up a little more, Boulton took the opportunity during the Independent interview to criticise Dimbleby’s handling of the BNP leader’s first appearance on Question Time in 2009:

I have to say that I did feel David Dimbleby got too involved and seemed to be operating as a panellist. I think if I had been doing that I would have tried to move it along so it wasn’t 50 minutes talking about the BNP. I would have tried to have got the BNP talking about law and order, Europe, foreign affairs, whatever.

But Dimbleby, speaking on Front Row last month, defended the style:

[Once it was agreed] it then of course became complicated because if you put the BNP on, people don’t want to talk to him about the post office strike, they want to talk about race, they want to talk about immigration, his views on that. They want to talk about the connections with the Klu Klux Klan, all those things.

We realised the audience would come, as indeed they did – it was a London audience – with a whole load of questions on race so we stuck with that. I did a lot of work with the producers on chapter and verse on everything that Nick Griffin had said.

I thought we did it the right way and I think it worked well.  [The fact that] in the end something like 10 million people saw that programme – either when it went out or afterwards, is the vindication of it.

BBC Trust will not ‘intervene’ in BBC’s BNP Question Time decision

BBC Trust intervention in the BBC’s decision to allow BNP leader Nick Griffin onto Question Time would be at odds with the corporation’s constitutional arrangements, the regulatory body has said.

Therefore the Trust will not hear appeals, and complaints can only be made after transmission. The release stated:

“They [ad hoc Trust committee] took the view that the Charter and Agreement establishes the director-general as editor-in-chief of the BBC – the individual responsible for the editorial content of BBC programmes.”

Full release at this link…

NUJ Release: Union criticises BBC for allowing BNP on Question Time

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) opposes the BBC’s decision to invite the leader of the British National Party (BNP) onto its Question Time programme, the union has said in a release.

“The union argues that the format of the show does not allow the BNP’s dishonest propaganda to be properly challenged.”

Full release at this link…

POLIS: The BNP and Question Time: How Belgian media handles the extreme right

Following reports that the British National Party (BNP) is to be invited on BBC’s Question Time, Dr Bart Cammaerts reflects on how the Belgian media handles far right politics.

[The BBC’s chief political advisor, Ric Bailey, explains the thinking behind the decision in this blog post.]

In Belgium and other European countries far right parties have been a part of the political mainstream for decades, suggests Cammaerts.

Cammaerts comments on the differing media schools of thought when it comes to reporting on far right politics:

  1. these parties should be treated in the same way as other political groups and given the same exposure and attention;
  2. sharing a platform with these groups legitimises their position.

“Journalists should furthermore be very aware of the dangers of legitimizing extreme right discourses when reporting on the extreme right and when interviewing their representatives,” he writes.

“Pluralism should be radical in a democracy, but for vibrant multi-cultural and ethnical democracies to be able to survive, a common ground relating to basic values such as equality, respect, solidarity, difference, etc. is crucial as well. Popper’s paradox of tolerance sums it up pretty neatly, up until what point can intolerance be tolerated before it destroys tolerance all together?”

Full post at this link…

BBC Question Time engages with Twitter #bbcqt

The BBC current affairs programme Question Time has started watching the online debate around a Twitter hashtag, #bbcqt, that has become popular over the last several weeks. A hashtag is a way for Twitter users to create a debate around a particular topic.

During the May 14 edition of Question Time, which was dominated by questions around MPs’ Expenses and described as the most vigorous Question Time ever, there were around 3,000 Tweets during the one hour run of the programme.

Different people have used the hashtag in the past, including Mark Littlewood, who runs a blog called ‘Mark Reckons’ (@markreckons), and Marc Knobbs, who posted about the hashtag back in early March this year.

On a different note, a dedicated live blog even existed for a short time in 2007, focusing on text messages received by the programme.

Now the makers of the programme have created a Twitter account @bbcqt, and will be watching the online debate as a first ‘unofficial’ step.

You can read more information about the tools that are useful for following this volume of Twitter Traffic, and a more detailed account of the development of the Twitter #bbcqt debate, in my piece “BBC Twestion Time Takes Off with bbcqt hashtag: 3000 Tweets in one Hour“, on the Wardman Wire.

Matt Wardman edits the non-partisan Wardman Wire group blog which covers politics, media and technology. He is @mattwardman on Twitter, and mattwardman AT gmail DOT com on email.