A Letter to Question Time

I often watch Question Time, a town-hall style political program aired on the BBC. I think its a great idea, but in recent times it seems to be having some problems which I feel impact its effectiveness.

Mass Media (social, broadcast or otherwise) benefits greatly from healthy debate – where people can share fact and opinion on political or any other matter. But in recent months I think the quality of the “debate” on Question Time has fallen.

Issues

Spin

I have the impression that panellists on QT are increasingly frequently experts at handling public relations. This gives the impression that those people answering the questions are not “real” people giving their views. They come across as spin doctors, which makes it difficult to pay attention. I know that confirmation bias is a common reaction for people, but I often feel that even people who make points I agree with are difficult to pay attention to, precisely because of this apparent insincerity.

I imagine that whenever the political parties know one of their members will appear on the show they get training in how to get the message across. This is a bit of a wider issue than just QT and I do feel that it prevents people who feel really strongly about an issue from voicing their opinions. Instead it turns them into a mouthpiece for someone else. They still agree on the same points, but the things they say are cheapened as a result.

Repetitiveness

This is more a symptom of politics in general. Every week I could discount the first half of the program – at least – because it adds nothing new to the general discourse. Usually, it is brexit related.

I suppose that if QT is a way for people to discuss the big questions facing the country in a given week, it is only natural that the same, or similar, ones are given every week. I don’t really care for it though. I think it creates a snowball effect: Keep talking about the same issue and it stays on peoples minds, then it is only natural that the same issues are repeatedly raised.

Not Answering the Question

This partly flows from the repetitive nature of QT, but also stems from the fact that in any given week the news cycle will bring up a small number of core topics which you can guess will be discussed. From this, the issue of spin plays in.

People going on to QT will have some statement regarding the various issues that they want to say. That they will say, at some point in the program. Even if they have to shoehorn it in somewhere. This results in the situation where a panellist is given a question and then they just completely ignore the question and give their prepared statement about the general topic of the question.

Then there’s the usual problem of politicians and their incredible ability to give non-answers to virtually any question, but that’s a whole separate issue not really specific to QT.

What could be fixed?

I can imagine some changes which certainly wouldn’t solve all the problems, but might get some way to making the program better.

Politician Panellists

This is a rather extreme approach – but stop having politicians on as panellists altogether. To some extent, everyone is a politician, but those who are a member of a political party (elected or not) shouldn’t be allowed on.

These people have more than enough avenues (news interviews, social media, advertising) with which to disseminate their propaganda and policies. I see no benefit to giving them airtime during a debate. Given the issues I have discussed above, I don’t think politicians bring anything useful to the output of QT.

Instead the panellists should be made up of people who are actually capable of adding something new when they answer a question:

  • Small business owners with experience of issues taking place
  • Civil servants who have to implement day to day politics
  • Experts: lawyers who deal with the law, researchers who know facts
  • Activists who care more about core issues than just their political careers
  • Journalists who have investigated issues at hand
  • Artists who have a deep understanding of issues and emotions that affect people

Whenever there are people from these backgrounds on the show I feel their answers and discussion are a lot more powerful than what politicians have to say. QT benefits greatly from having these people on as they are people who are actually willing to answer questions and are not just there as “damage control” for whatever politicians did during the week.

The discussion from activists and experts are particularly impressive to me, compared to statements given by politicians. These are the people at the front line of various issues and they always have a much better handle of the topics at hand. In government these are the people who would be informing the choices made by politicians, so why bother having politicians around to answer questions at all?

Broader Topics

If you assume that you don’t have politicians on, you can go further: You can reduce the time spent on issues which have already been discussed at length throughout the rest of the week. The same issues that get brought up repeatedly (brexit, elections are a common topic recently) need not be focused on as much as a lack of politicians making the same arguments over and over will free up time for discussion on other topics.

A debate and discussion on a greater range of topics would be good. The high level of viewership for QT would let many issues which might have gone under the radar be brought to light.

This has started to be done in recent episodes of QT, though it is still restricted to just the latter part of the program. Spreading a broader range of topics from the very start would be a good next step.


I have doubts these changes would ever be implemented, even just for a week. Getting rid of politicians and broadening the topics would no doubt result in the BBC being accused of “bias”, despite the fact that these logically reduce the chance for bias, and should make any apparent bias easier to spot.

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