Sarah Walker gives her first hand account of being an invited audience member on the BBC’s flagship debate show “Question Time in Norwich.”
A curious evening on Thursday in which I made myself look as respectable and unthreatening as I can to go into the audience of BBC Question Time.
When you apply for your ticket, you are asked whether you are a member of any political party, how you voted last time, how you voted on the EU referendum, and how you are planning to vote next time, as well as age, ethnicity, m or f (no other options) though not, I notice, your sexual orientation. This seems to be done on a trust basis, as, unless you are famous or have a unique name, it would be next to impossible to check if you’re telling the truth. Recently there were comments on social media about Tory councilors being “spotted’ in the audience – that does not mean they were a plant: they most likely applied and were selected to make up whatever proportion of Tories were considered suitable for the area and its demographics. I don’t know who decides the proportions or on what basis. (These questions are repeated when you are contacted the day before, though, so if you haven’t told the truth you need to have a good memory).
You get emailed an invitation and asked to submit a question back: it should be 20 words or less. I tried to word a question that would give all the panel a decent chance, but obviously one about which my preferred party has something especially good to say. I found that quite difficult. In the end I settled for “Should parties run on their record in office, their programme, or on the perceived personality of their leader?”
The day of the show
The huge rigs of the BBC outside broadcast unit throbbing away outside the venue, OPEN, in Norwich, a scattering of tense looking men in suits talking into ear mikes in doorways, a group of protesters with a handsome banner that unfortunately was illegible from close to. Here we are, a small queue forming at the door.
It is a bit strange knowing we’ve been chosen partly on the basis of political affiliations to ensure a spread of opinion. You find you are looking at your neighbours with suspicion: which are they? Oh, with shoes like that they must be… I spoke to a chummy older lady next to me in the queue – well dressed, neat jewellery – thinking ‘Hmm – Tory?’ We bonded on what a great place Norwich is to live. We looked at the list of speakers and I mentioned that the only one I knew nothing about was Jonathan Bartley, the Green party co-chair. She suddenly and very emphatically told me that Green councilors have been wonderful for the city and work very hard. (I’d heard rather the opposite about one of them while canvassing recently, but forbore to mention it).
The queue inches in. Security is roughly at provincial airport level. Anyone with a water bottle has to give it up and we are brushed down with a metal detector. Then passport control, where our names get crossed off the list and photo ID is checked. You can take a card there and write another question, so I do – about whether means testing the fuel allowance will cost more than it saves. Producers are buzzing around the room collecting cards, and there’s tea, coffee, water, biscuits. We are, generally, a well-dressed, prosperous looking crowd, and pretty white, even by Norwich standards. The staff and security of the venue are notably more diverse than the audience.
Suddenly all eyes are drawn to a famous profile floating across the room: silver coiffed hair, hawk nose, face the colour of discreet foundation, atop the dapper suiting of David Dimbleby. His head seems out of proportion to his surprisingly slabby little body, which moves like he is a puppet made from a cereal box. My neighbour, who has divulged her age during our chat, murmurs admiringly, ‘He’s five years older than I am.’
The moment he has the mic and everyone’s attention he springs into life: the colourless eyes glint, the creases deepen around the eyes, the well-known voice embraces the room. He explains the order of events, and does a bit of teeing us up, encouraging us to clap and to comment, and telling a few amusing cautionary tales. A lady was caught on camera eating a banana; don’t be that lady. Apart from the questions – which have been selected and the people asking them notified first (and they give you back the question you have written so you can remember it) – you can put your hand up if you want to comment. He urges us to do so. But remember to put your hand down again. One chap still kept his hand up when making his comment to camera: don’t be that chap.
Then he says, as close as I can quote from memory:
“We want to hear what you have to say. We particularly want to hear from the Conservatives in the audience. We find that Conservatives, you know, they tend to hold back, they listen to what other people have to say. So, if you’re a Conservative, don’t be shy, don’t hold back, let us hear from you.”
He seems to be within a hair of saying “Lefties talk too much,” but doesn’t.
This surprises me a great deal, and I’ve been wondering about it ever since.
What he doesn’t say, and what he might well have said, is “Women tend to hold back, let’s hear from you” – because it’s immediately apparent when we go in that the women in the audience put their hands up far less often then the men do, many of whom never seemed to have their hands down. Personally I try to make up for it, and next day my armpits ache.
Rehearsals and warm-up
Doors are opened into the Q-shaped set, which looks enormous on television but is rather petite in real life. One chair is taller than the others: Dimbleby’s. The audience too is not large: probably 200 people. You are shepherded to fill up the seats as you file in, but they don’t tell you where to sit individually: it’s just according to where you are in the queue, though I suppose the first through the door can sit where they like. I find myself sitting in the front row on the extreme right, next to a smart young architect, and just in front of three burly older men, who soon reveal themselves to be UKIP supporters and Donald Trump fans. The architect takes a picture of the set on her smartphone and we laugh about how it even looks bigger on her tiny screen than it does in reality.
A young Scots producer gives us another pep talk, makes us practice applauding, runs through what we can expect, and generally entertains: he’s funny and witty and perks everyone up. He asks for volunteers to be a practice panel and they have a pretend debate with him acting as host, while the film crew check that light and sound is good and the sound crew bring the mic booms in over the audience for comments. One bit of advice is not to look up to check whether the boom mic is there: it will be, but to the viewers it can look as if the audience member is seeking divine inspiration before speaking. It is terribly hard to resist the temptation to look for the mic.
The first volunteer for the panel makes an instant impression: a very young man who speaks as if in training to be an elder statesman. He appears to have a firm and lengthily articulated opinion on absolutely everything under the sun and rolls his eyes to the audience as he makes his points as if acting in panto. His seat in the audience is slap in the midst of the middle tier – possibly he and his chums were first through the doors – and we come to hear from him a lot: he gets called to comment several more times in the course of the evening, during which he loses the respect of, at a guess, about 90% of the audience, and, it turns out later, quite a lot of the viewers.
During this practice debate the people who have been selected to ask their written questions are called by name: it seems like a fairish mix of age and gender (all white, but the audience is not far from being that). They are asked to stand up by their seats so lighting can be checked and the cameras cued. I am disappointed and relieved I’m not one of them.
Then Sir David Dimbleby is gleaming in the lights, announcing the panel, who stride across one by one to take their seats: Sir Vince Cable, Priti Patel, Angela Rayner, Charles Moore, Jonathan Barclay.
A practice question from the audience is put to the panel but not broadcast, presumably so the techs can make a last check for light and sound, and it’s about Donald Trump and whether – or how soon – he’ll be impeached. Rayner and Bartley raise the question of whether it was wise or decent for May to cuddle up to him and then brag about getting in first. Patel’s answer is astonishingly vacuous: the US is just so powerful and so important and we must stop at nothing to try to be their President’s friend, whatever levels of humiliation and indeed condoning criminality this might turn out to imply. It is such a poor answer that I wish everyone at home could have seen it.
Despite agreeing with her, the Kippers behind me don’t applaud Patel – I’m not sure if that’s because her answer is too weak for even them to stomach, or because she’s Asian – but they do applaud the guy who comments from elsewhere in the audience that Trump is a businessman (as in, obviously wonderful).
Dimbleby says “Yes, a businessman who has been bankrupt,” at which various people scattered in the audience, including the three just behind me, are heard to say “No, he’s never been bankrupt.” “No, he hasn’t,” “No.” This echoes around the set and interests me mightily.
It seems a quick and handy way of identifying the serious UKIP supporters in the audience, and I’m left wondering: is it because they don’t know that “filing for chapter seven” – which Trump has done at least four times to date – is US-speak for going bankrupt? Or whether they’ve all shared some meme about how technically it’s his enterprises which have gone bankrupt, not him personally, or some similar dodge? (I later discover that this is probably it: at least four of Trump’s businesses have been taken into administration, and this is just short of bankruptcy). Anyway, it seems to be a handy shibboleth for spotting a hardline Kipper.
Then we’re underway: theme music, the famous Dimbleby greeting, introducing the panel, and applause. I hope we’re up to standard with our applause.
Cable looks ill, his face and scalp the colour of putty. He sounds like what one imagines an elder statesman ought to sound like, and makes some good points, though he veers off at least twice into saying ludicrous things which he surely knows are misleading. The first (very nearly the most stupid remark of the evening from the panel, but beaten later on in a competitive field) comes when, in the course of trying to justify the LibDems’ broken promises on tuition fees, he says it was all right because “80% of people don’t go to university”.
Sure, Vince (though as he’d just said 40% of young people do, it must be closer to 60% who don’t) – but approximately 100% of people, whatever their educational level, benefit from having doctors, dentists, nurses, engineers, pharmacists, teachers for their children, architects, town planners, administrators, and so on and so forth around them who did. Not that we don’t also benefit from all the people who didn’t go to university as well – heaven knows we do – but it is absurd and deceitful to talk of higher education as if it were a purely private asset.
My hand shoots up as I want to make the point that it is not the lack of tuition fees that will destroy our universities, as Cable and Moore claim, but Brexit, combined with the idiotic insistence of the government on treating overseas students as immigrants when they clearly aren’t. They are, bizarrely, included in the numbers the Conservatives want to reduce to 10,000 a year (and UKIP to zero!). Without the huge sums of money they pay, universities really will go bankrupt – not to mention the amounts they spend here in other parts of the economy. And then there’s the “soft power” aspect: 10% of world leaders in politics, business and industry did some of their education here, most of them at university level, and it’s another absolutely massive world advantage we have which the Conservatives seem set on squandering. But I don’t get called.
Cable is good on the Tories’ absence of any costing in their manifesto and how they will undoubtedly raise taxes but are not prepared to admit it. He makes the sensible grown-up point that we can’t have a decent society without paying a proper level of taxation (though that applies to funding the universities, too). But then he trots out the old cliché about Labour thinking “money grows on trees” – this from the man who made the Magic Money Tree flower and bear fruit for the bankers when he was the Coalition Business Secretary; who is certainly intelligent and well-informed enough to know a country’s finances can’t be compared to a household’s; and who should appreciate the difference between borrowing to shore up a banking black hole and borrowing to invest in the real economy of things people need.
It also hampers a point he could have made in favour of his own party’s current Unique Selling Point, because the biggest single flowering of the Magic Money Tree in our lifetimes has been the emergency bout of Quantitative Easing the Conservatives were forced into in the days after the EU referendum result, to keep the pound from dropping through the floor and into a black hole at the centre of the earth. When people tell you “Brexit will be fine because the pound recovered,”- yes it did, and this is very largely why: a massive creation of Government debt pumped into currency traders’ hands to stabilise it. But instead he made a cheap and deceptive point to take a pop at Labour. The architect and I agree with each other that it’s a shame how the LibDems often sound good but when you read what they say and see what they actually do, it’s another matter altogether.
Priti Patel has beautiful facial structure and fine eyes, but an unsettling appearance. While listening to Angela Rayner (who she seems to detest on a personal level) or when she hears a comment she agrees with, it’s like watching a very bad actor trying for all they are worth to project an emotion: See! See how much I disapprove! Look and marvel at how much I agree! Unfortunately, the means she has to signal with, her face, seems rigid and mask-like under the lights.
As she turns to address Vince, who is to her left, I see that the right side of her face doesn’t match the other. The right corner of her mouth has a hard, sardonic curl to it that keeps appearing and being suppressed. It is a weird effect, as if that’s the only muscle in her face that actually works and she’s trying her best to fight it. Her body language is intense: she crouches forwards over the desk and swings her head from side to side. She is constantly trying to interrupt and contradict Rayner, who sits on the other side of Dimbleby.
I’d be hard put to summarise the content of anything Patel says, apart from the Trump comment (which isn’t broadcast): the Tory manifesto is wonderful, Theresa May is a leader and Jeremy Corbyn isn’t, and she gets groaned when she talks about May as “strong and stable”. I have a feeling that slogan is going to be ditched soon, as even Dimbleby rolls his eyes at it. I’m longing to ask how May can claim to be the best negotiator over Brexit when she’s not even willing to debate with the other party leaders, but don’t get the chance.
Angela Rayner is the only person on the panel with a distinct regional accent. It’s a surprise how much that stands out and how it seems odd compared to the kinds of voices we are all so used to hearing from panels and podia. In repose she looks a bit pouty and unimpressed, but there are flashes of wit in her eyes and reactions when the conversation gets going. She makes eye contact with people in the audience when they speak and seems to hear what they are saying, rather than just waiting until they have finished, though there’s apparently no come-back allowed from the panel to people’s personal stories: having been encouraged to share them, they are just left hanging.
Rayner has a tendency to get into yes it is, no it isn’t spats with Patel, during which her points become inaudible (to me at least: they may have been heard better by viewers). She speaks to some issues from personal experience, having been a care worker, and gets great applause for saying – in answer to what seems to have been intended as a trap question about freedom of movement – that Labour aims to ensure British school leavers and graduates develop the skills that are needed, instead of employers buying them in from abroad.
She is direct about how immigration has been used to undercut wages in her own area (illegally, she points out before being cut off, but unimpeded by any enforcement). I get the impression – which may be mistaken – that she is interrupted more often than anyone else on the panel: when Patel tries to talk over her Dimbleby seems often to intervene and then give the floor to Patel. Dimbleby interrupts Rayner quite a lot himself. She’s unruffled. She and Bartley are the only ones who laugh as if they actually find something funny.
Charles Moore, the “non political” member of the panel, and – ahem – Margaret Thatcher’s official biographer. A friend who was his contemporary at Cambridge had a massive unrequited crush on him, and he has often told me how beautiful Moore was as a young man fresh out of Eton. He now looks like an owl, with pouchy eyes and a long beaky Plantagenet nose, and he talks unmitigated guff, getting I think the least applause of anyone on the panel. He supplies that “truly asinine remark” moment W.H. Auden talks about in “On the Circuit”: that moment when you realise the expensively suited, privately educated, born to rule gentleman product of our finest institutions talking authoritatively about anything under the sun is in fact a complete, and dangerous, idiot.
In Moore’s case, it was his use of the words “alleged climate change”. Everyone takes a sharp intake of breath (apart from the UKippers, who applaud) and many of us nearly fall off our chairs laughing, including the Green Party co-leader sitting next to him. It would be more of a joke if you could forget Moore is not just some random fool, but a serious opinion-former who has edited two of the more serious broadsheet newspapers and still contributes regularly to the Spectator. (The truly asinine remark from some random fool comes later).
Moore tries to defend the Dementia Tax by saying those who have done well should pay more – mentioning owning a £400,000 house as the kind of thing, though I seem to remember that’s what the Tories’ notion of “affordable housing” turned out to be. I want to suggest the radical idea that while we are fit and healthy and earning we could all just, maybe, pay a few more pence on the pound in tax – you’ll never miss it! – and pool the risk nationally, instead of forcing people to pay a tax on their individual bad luck if they turn out to have drawn the short straw and need social care. We could call it – I don’t know – National Insurance? Social Security? But I’m not asked.
Moore also claims that Corbyn’s huge rallies are just “preaching to the converted”, which amuses me mightily. First by reminding me of the last time I was at OPEN: me and a whole crowd of curious people – a far more numerous and diverse bunch than this Question Time audience, as it happened – turning up to see who this Corbyn chap might be during the Labour leadership contest of 2015. Of the 10 or so people I knew who were also there, 7 or 8 to my knowledge joined or re-joined the Labour Party over the next couple of days as members or as supporters. Now, that doesn’t guarantee election victory, obviously, but my goodness, we were hardly “the converted” before we’d heard what he had to preach. And then compare and contrast with Theresa May’s tiny and carefully selected audiences on the campaign trail and her refusal to debate… oh well. No comeback to that is asked for.
Jonathan Bartley. Cogent and well-informed, he made a stirring defence of foreign aid, as did Rayner – and surprisingly Patel defended it too, although it seemed to cost her blood to agree on anything with Rayner. Rayner deftly put a spoke in Patel’s wheels by pointing out that we’re currently sending aid to Yemen at the same time as selling Saudi the weapons to bomb them with. Bartley seems on the side of the angels in most questions, and a cheerfully collegiate sort of chap. He enjoys the luxury of being untainted by prospects of power and consequently comes across as actually less party political than the “non-political” – but actually, and obviously, Conservative – Charles Moore.
Best person for a night out and share your troubles with: Rayner.
Best person to be in a seminar with: Bartley.
Best candidate for head girl of Slytherin: Patel.
Best person for you to read the small print very carefully before purchasing: Cable.
Best person to recommend this marvelous tailor that you will never in your lifetime be able to afford, and not understand why you don’t simply save money by going for the four-suit discount: Moore.
As for the audience: it is always encouraging when audience members are better informed and wiser than the professional politicians.
The question on ending foreign aid – given what a miniscule drop in the ocean it actually is – seemed like a groaner (getting it shut down is apparently a daily talking point in the right-leaning media) but gives rise to some terrific replies from Bartley and Rayner.
There is a Corbyn question, which is kind of good and kind of not. Good (from my point of view) in that there’s a lot of clearly-expressed liking for him in the room, as well as a few easily-identified puddles of hatred from the Ukippers, when the same people who had denied Trump’s numerous bankruptcies earlier greet Corbyn’s name with cries of “tosser!” This is countered by a point made by a member of the audience about Corbyn’s credibility as leader coming from his having won a massive mandate, twice, of his party’s membership, and by the way, who was it exactly that elected May to lead her party?
This one is swiftly sat on by Dimbleby, who brings it back to the original questioner: what does she think? She’s a big Corbyn fan – which might not have been the answer he’s expecting. He says, “Oh, so it was a rhetorical question then?” (No David: that isn’t what a rhetorical question is). But bad because this is all well-trodden ground, and there is no equivalent question about the other leaders – and actually, we are not electing a President, despite the impression given by the Conservative’s electioneering materials. The “Corbyn issue” – which should not be an issue at all – seems to be one that everybody is determined to keep at the forefront of our minds for as long as possible, and there is no May issue, or Farron issue or Nuttall issue – none, do you hear me? None!
It is a fairly rollicking audience, and this comes to a head when the Young Man Presumptuous – the one who volunteered to be on the panel, and for everything else –challenges the proposal in Labour’s manifesto that private schools should pay VAT. He is outraged, and annoys us all for the last time that night by claiming that this discriminates against “the brightest and best” (he says that twice) – when in fact he simply means the children of the very richest, whose parents might end up paying a tad more. 5% of the population send their children to private schools, and there’s little evidence for them being any brighter or better than the other 95% – though they do, of course, turn up on Question Time panels a lot more often than 5% of the time.
He gets booed and hissed, and looks as if his eyes are going to pop with righteous indignation. The following day he is a minor celeb and being called “Tory Boy” on social media. Ah well, I expect his consciousness of being brighter and better than anyone else in the room – apart from, obviously, Charles Moore, formerly of Eton and Trinity College Cambridfe – may be his consolation. People on left-leaning social media have been commenting “Tory plant” – but really, just another young privately educated rich boy, bursting with wounded entitlement.
And then that’s it: over. Whew! How time flies when you’re having fun.
It seems like it’s been a jolly good show, and it also feels as if this is a bit like what democracy might look like: here we all are, voters and pols and “non political” wiseacre, meeting in a fair and free exchange of ideas overseen by twinkly Uncle Dimbers. I leave in the rain with a bit of a buzz. But it is that: a show. Conflict, however staged or trivial, is what the show wants – what current affairs broadcasting wants in general – and is what it got tonight, not always trivially. This, I think, is why the show has been so massively, disproportionately, friendly to UKIP: not necessarily – or not solely – because of right-wing bias, but because it supplies an instant kind of Punch and Judy aspect. It’s not quite Jeremy Kyle for politics, but – it kind of is.
What did Dimbleby mean?
And the Dimbleby comment to us, just before the start, about especially wanting to hear from Conservatives?
Some possibilities that spring to mind.
Like almost everyone else, the BBC called the 2015 election wrong. The phenomenon in polling is called “shy Tory syndrome”: people who are going to vote Tory are not always willing to admit it, possibly because they have the residual decency to be embarrassed. This – and certainly not election expenses fraud, whatever are you thinking? You mean honest accounting errors which all happened randomly across the country to be errors in the same direction – is supposed to explain the fact the Tories got a surprising and unforeseen small but absolute majority. Maybe the BBC is hyper aware of “shy Tory syndrome” and endeavouring to overcome it in their coverage?
Is it true, in fact, that Conservatives in the audience do tend to be less forthcoming, I wonder? I have no way of testing that without comparing the hands raised, the comments taken and the questions submitted with the political affiliations declared in the applications. I don’t have any way of getting that data, but it would make a great PhD topic for someone in years to come: I do hope the BBC will supply the means for such a study.
And if Conservatives truly are quieter, is it because the left are more able to articulate their principles? Assuming Greens to be “left”, the Green and Labour representatives tonight on the panel were certainly far more articulate, passionate and well-informed on points of fact and of principle than any of the others. Or is it because it is assumed that the Conservative position on everything doesn’t usually need to be articulated and defended, because it’s just “common sense”? (Meaning, incidentally, that those who disagree must either be lacking in common sense or for some reason lying).
Certainly the BBC is exceptionally cautious about offending the right at the moment – and what a long moment it has been – and doesn’t much care whether it offends the left. Possibly they are banking on the Conservatives being in power for the foreseeable future and hope to stave off retribution if they step wrong. A foolish calculation, because they will inevitably be dismantled sooner or later – and much sooner by the right than by the left, which still does largely believe in public service broadcasting. But the senior folks now at the BBC will have gone into honoured retirement by then, of course, and may be able to bask in the distinction of having been the last ones.
So, I don’t know. Fill in your pet theory here. But I would never have believed it if I hadn’t been there to hear it for myself.