Lesley Riddoch: has BBC’s Question Time gone rogue?

Is the BBC’s flagship series now a law unto itself – directly accountable to no one, asks Lesley Riddoch.

What’s it like to be a leading politician, whose party is flying high in the polls, with a better vote share (pro rata) than the resurgent Brexit Party, still popular after 12 years of government and, according to political scientist Professor Sir John Curtice, the only mainstream party north of the Border unlikely to lose votes or seats at the forthcoming European elections? What’s it like to be doing pretty well by anyone’s standards, yet apparently hated the length and breadth of Scotland?

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What’s it like to work for decades building political success in Scotland, only to discover that, on almost every instalment of the BBC’s Question Time, that country has somehow ceased to exist? Instead you visit Question Time’s Scotland – an angry place with deep reserves of anti-SNP sentiment, a preoccupation with local service shortcomings and rows of angry Brexiteers. Of course, such political outlooks are real, perfectly valid and held by some voters all over Scotland. But in the proportions that currently dominate Question Time?

When Question Time host Fiona Bruce asked Elgins SNP supporters to speak, just seven hands went up, says Lesley. Picture: BBCWhen Question Time host Fiona Bruce asked Elgins SNP supporters to speak, just seven hands went up, says Lesley. Picture: BBC
When Question Time host Fiona Bruce asked Elgins SNP supporters to speak, just seven hands went up, says Lesley. Picture: BBC
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Aunty’s controversial flagship programme is apparently produced by people who work in Glasgow and must therefore understand Scottish politics. But in their hands the country that’s elected a series of SNP governments regularly disappears – to be replaced by a different place altogether. Somewhere that despises everything the SNP stands for. Somewhere that wholeheartedly supports Brexit. Somewhere that finds the prospect of independence laughable.

In Question Time’s Scotland, the Yes city of Dundee disappears; Yes city Glasgow disappears. Likewise SNP-represented Stirling and Motherwell – these real places with their real voting patterns disappear to be replaced with a hefty, voluble, artificial, bussed in “balance” of right-thinking folk frae furth of the parish. Can’t a place be roughly what it is, balanced over time with programmes from other places with different political loyalties? Can’t the audience be authentic? Why do that?

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that bussed in participants normalise Scotland’s political spectrum for southern viewers, spike calls for independence and enliven the boring tendency towards consensus, thus converting any Scottish debate back into more easily digestible, confrontational British political discourse – democracy Punch-and-Judy style.

This is not Scotland. This is Question Time, wandering the country but channelling the hostility to change and broken two-party politics of Westminster at every turn. The very choice of Elgin as last week’s venue was significant. Moray voted to Remain by just 122 votes and could thus act as a convenient proxy for Brexiting England.

But prodcuers were unable to field the racy Nigel Farage, since he’d already sucked all the oxygen in the room from the previous week’s appalling edition in Northampton. The producers could have fielded a Ukip candidate but that party is really beyond the pale and only ever polled low, single figures north of the Border. So a solution presented itself in the shape of Brexiteer lawyer Eilidh Douglas, also vice chair of Amnesty UK. She’s a Conservative who thinks people should stop labelling Brexit as a “nasty” far-right project and is a supporter of Scottish independence.

Now it was interesting to hear a pro-independence speaker who’s also critical of the SNP, but Douglas isn’t standing in Euro elections this week – the Scottish Greens are. They haven’t been on a Question Time panel for 18 months, even though the party is polling higher than Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in Scotland. The inclusion of a Scottish Green would also have provided expert opinion for the question about North Sea oil drilling in light of the climate emergency and restored balance to the unionist-heavy panel. But achieving balance apparently isn’t the top priority for the Question Time editor, who promised “many adrenaline-packed Thursday nights” when she was appointed in 2017.

And there’s the rub.

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Scotland’s constitutional future is unquestionably the main dividing line north of the Border. But Brexit is the only issue that preoccupies southern viewers, so achieving a Brexit balance is the only one that vaguely matters – even in Scotland, where every single council area voted to Remain.

Now, to be crystal clear, the SNP is not entitled to an easy ride and must be ready for robust criticism from all sides. That’s fair. No political coverage should be worshipful. But did the Elgin programme look or feel like the cross-section of views and interests that make up Scotland? Is it balanced to have one unambiguously pro-independence voice out of five panellists, two unambiguous Remainers and two Conservatives? Is that really a valid snapshot of Scotland – or the political face of England writ large upon any Scottish venue that feels sufficiently awestruck to welcome the Question Time remodelling team?

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But never mind the panel, it was the audience that really gave the game away. Deputy First Minister John Swinney was faced with a blizzard of hostile questions from three axe-grinding Moray Conservatives presenting as members of the public but not identified as such by the show’s host, Fiona Bruce. So far, so normal. Every Scottish edition of the programme features a hard-to-challenge, anti-SNP tirade from a member of the public who turns out to have undeclared Tory or Ukip affiliations. The skewed nature of the audience was confirmed minutes later when Bruce asked SNP supporters to speak. In a camera shot of about 80 people, just seven hands went up. Question Time either managed to find the quietest SNP supporters in Scotland – again – or simply didn’t have a correctly weighted audience.

SNP depute leader Keith Brown wants the BBC to refer itself to Ofcom and let it hold an independent investigation. But let’s face it,that isn’t going to happen.

In the past, when Question Time asked panellists to jump, the only question has been how high. Such unquestioning acceptance of the programme makers’ power and terms of trade is no longer naivety – it’s compliance. So, is there any point in appearing on Question Time? The SNP, the Scottish Greens and independence-supporting commentators must actively decide.

Have programme producers Mentorn Scotland gone rogue? Does the string of Scottish gaffes show that BBC controller Donalda Mackinnon has no control over the indy production team based at Pacific Quay, even though a senior Beeb producer is executive editor? Is the flagship series now a law unto itself – directly accountable to no one?

Viewers, licence-fee payers and voters have the right to know.