By Niall Christie
With the grand return of a British TV favourite, should we be asking if political panel show Question Time is now past its sell-by date?
Turning 38 later this month, this institution of political television returns to our screen late this Thursday night. As the usual viewership of anywhere between 2m and 3m tune in to see Dimbleby and co, a massive 13m less than those who tuned in to watch the BBC’s final Bake Off season, the other 94% of the country’s voting population will be elsewhere, either not caring or wishing for a more engaging format in which to digest this particular dose of political discussion.
And why is this, in a time of political engagement unmatched since the ’97 resurgence of Labour? Surely viewing numbers should be up outwith the occasional election special. But the interest in the politics of 2017 is unfortunately massively outstripped by the mass disengagement felt by much of the population towards, arguably, the UK’s ‘premier’ forum for mass political discussion.
Three men for every two women. More American than Welsh guests in 2017. UKIP boasting 7% of this year’s guests despite winning little under 2% of the country’s vote and none of the seats in Westminster. A median age of 52, 12 years higher than the median of the country as a whole. All of these are symptoms of a wider problem with British politics and the media establishment, but not one which Question Time has made any attempt to address.
So while the panel for this evening’s show is female dominated (for only the fourth time this year), excluding the ever-male and ever-conservative David Dimbleby, this is not the beginning of a bright resurgence from what was once seen, and still is in the odd section of the deepest darkest corners of the English-centric political establishment. This is the flailing of a failing forum, and the public deserves better.
While the snap election earlier this year provided us with a number of painful experiences, what it did do was establish a modern way of discussing the problems of today. Paxman’s grilling of the Labour and Conservative leaders may have been harsh, but we learned more than from the Channel 4 journalist than from a full series of point scoring with Dimbleby. In Scotland, Bernard Ponsonby held the Scottish leaders to account fantastically, cementing the view of many that the BBC is falling further behind in its ability to properly inform the public (even if STV managed to somehow exclude the Greens with little reasoning and despite widespread outrage).
A number of other new media provided effective forums for political discussion utilising technology like Facebook’s live content to include as many viewers in a discussion as possible. For some reason, the BBC seem to have completely ignored moves forward, and until this is taken into account, there will be no chance of a revival from Question Time. Instead, what we need to see, both for the future of the BBC’s coverage of regular discussion, and for the good of the British public staying informed, is a new show. A more inclusive, representative and modern approach needs to be taken to guest selection and hosting, with the inclusion of modern political voices (such as the return of former guest Kerry-Anne Mendoza) required to bring young people in. One thing is for certain though, Question Time, its host and their 1980s approach to politics, have got to go.