Blowing the Whistle on Question Time

For an object lesson on how not to chair a television panel discussion programme, look no further than Question Time (Thursday May 9th, BBC 1).

A chairperson should be like a football referee.  In a well officiated football match, the referee is invisible.  He has probably had a word with the respective team captains as the coin is tossed, and set down the rules of engagement.  Observe the rules, he says, and I will not impede the flow of play.  For that reason he might let an infringement pass, albeit temporarily, to see if an advantage to the other side accrues.  He won’t penalise bad play; only foul play.  If he has an opinion as to a team’s performance, and how it might be improved, he keeps it to himself.  He may be invisible, but he has clout, in the form of yellow and red cards.  Therefore the players should behave themselves.  The fans on the terraces take all this for granted.  They would be indignant if the referee showed bias towards one side, and flabbergasted if he took possession of the ball, and ran with it, like Sir Stanley Matthews, the Wizard of the Dribble.  What would such an intervention signify?

Anarchy.  If the referee behaves badly, the players will do the same, and then the bad behaviour will spill on to the terraces.

Anarchy pretty much describes Thursday’s Question Time.  On the panel: Amber Rudd, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Jonathan Reynolds, Shadow Economics Spokesman, Anna Soubry of the newly formed Change UK Party, Nigel Farage of the newly formed Brexit party, and entrepreneur and Labour donor John Mills.  Four questions were asked, three of them Brexit-heavy.  I paraphrase:

  1. After a week of great come-backs, will Theresa May do the same in getting her Brexit deal through Parliament?  

“You’re thinking of the footie?” enquired Fiona Bruce.

“Maybe.”  And maybe that’s what brought my football analogy to mind.  It wasn’t long before Ms Bruce got on the ball, the first of many unscheduled and redundant interruptions.  She abandoned her detached position above the battle and stepped into the heat and dust of the arena.  But isn’t that what the other panellists are there to do?  Frankly it’s a bit of an affront, that she should steal their thunder.  If somebody is spouting humbug, somebody else on the panel will be sure to take them to task.  The trouble with the chairperson stepping into the fray is that she will lose perspective.  Actually she lost perspective, thrice, when she failed to understand a question from an audience member, when she forgot to ask Nigel Farage Question 2, and in Question 4, when she failed to understand the meaning of an exchange with Mr Farage, following yet another of her interruptions.  Once she had entered the arena, the match was no longer being refereed, and it is hardly surprising that panel members began to talk over one another, exchanges became strident and bad-tempered, the audience felt free to howl with derision, and to shout out without invitation, despite the fact that their heckling could not be clearly heard on air.  Ms Bruce tried to rein in the assembly, reminding people that the Brexit debate had become toxic, but by then she had lost all authority, and her intervention made not one whit of difference.  And we were still on Question 1.

  1. Would a change of Prime minister break the deadlock? 

The trouble with a football match that has gone out of control is that the spectators are no longer interested in the finesse of the Beautiful Game, but only in how down-and-dirty it can get.  For the record, Amber Rudd thought the Conservative Party should hold its nerve, Jonathan Reynolds wanted a General Election, Anna Soubry fears Boris as a possible successor, John Mills thought Mrs May should quit ASAP and a successor should attempt to renegotiate a better deal with the EU.  Mr Farage wasn’t asked.  So…

  1. Should Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn be worried about the Brexit Party?

… So he answered Question 2 when asked Question 3.  He hopes the PM stays PM for as long as possible because the more she makes a hash of it the better the Brexit Party will do.  I think it was self-evident that Mrs May and Mr Corbyn should be very worried about the Brexit Party.  Love him or loathe him, Mr Farage is a formidable political performer.  He shares with Mr Trump an ability to make a connection, and to hold an audience, perhaps even to mesmerise it.  His answers may well be simplistic and pat, he might for all I know have made it all up on the back of an envelope, but the mainstream parties can’t seem to find a way to challenge him and to undermine his arguments.

  1. How can the falling GP numbers be revived?

Thank goodness for a non-Brexit question.  It had been all over the news that day.  England and Wales used to have 66 GPs per 100,000 population, and now that number has fallen to 60.  Actually in Northampton, from where the programme was going out, the number was 55.  As for the question itself, I can’t think any of the proposed solutions were terribly original.  The usual tropes: train more doctors; practise in a different way; put more money in; recruit more; go to the pharmacist.  The most eloquent and coherent statement came from an Italian doctor in the audience who was a local GP.  She described how the critical problem in General Practice today is not one of recruitment, but of retention.  Doctors are leaving the UK in droves, because they are so unhappy.  Half way through her statement, Ms Bruce opined, “I can hear from your voice that that upsets you.”  First a referee, then a player, and now a commentator.

Of course, question 4 is not really a non-Brexit question.  Everything concerns the place of the individual in a community, a society, a nation, a state, a continent, and a world.  Nobody in the panel had apparently stopped to wonder what is making the medical profession so unhappy.  What are the doctors trying to escape from?  The toxicity of Question Time?

Mr Farage said about the European elections on May 23rd, “I’m trying to win.  I want to break up the two party system.”  Anna Soubry and Nigel Farage agree about one thing, that politics is broken.  But I think if anybody was satisfied with the way Question Time went, it would have been Mr Farage.  He might well have rubbed his hands together with glee.  A good night’s work!

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