Lesley Riddoch: What BBC Scotland can learn from Fiona Bruce and Question Time

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BBC Scotland needs to dump, not adapt, the tired format that dogs the UK’s flagship politics show, says Lesley Riddoch

Should BBC Scotland be cursing Question Time for muddying the broadcasting waters before its channel launch on 24 February – or should it be learning some big lessons?

Fiona Bruce was revealed as the new presenter of the long-running Question Time series last year

Fiona Bruce was revealed as the new presenter of the long-running Question Time series last year

The network flagship current affair programme got pelters last week after a former UKIP candidate appeared on the show for a fourth time – apparently breaking the programme’s own rules. Billy Mitchell, a flute band member who amassed 34 votes when standing for UKIP locally in 2013, appeared previously in Kilmarnock and twice in Stirling, managing to ask a question hostile to the SNP each time.

Amazingly, he then managed a fourth appearance in Motherwell and once again was picked to ask a question accusing the SNP of hypocrisy for offering no ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ option during the Scottish independence referendum. Surprisingly though, it wasn’t that robust rant that grabbed the headlines.

Instead of featuring his anti SNP question, most papers focused instead on the frequency of Mitchell’s appearance, with the Sun observing it was “a feat so unlikely that bookies would give odds of several thousand to one against it happening.”

That’s very significant.

Normally the mainstream media doesn’t register the complaints about bias of the SNP or wider Yes movement. But Mitchell’s presence as a “plant” was so blatant and the online outcry so precise (including stills from all his previous outings) that no-one could ignore the claim. More problematic for Question Time - no-one wanted to.

The stark truth is that the flagship programme of the British Broadcasting Corporation is now less popular amongst tabloid and broadsheet papers, north and south of the border, than a party that wants to leave Britain. That’s quite a feat and doesn’t represent any volte-face over independence by the mainstream media. Rather the press has marked Question Time out as the Weakest Link in the BBC’s current affairs offering.

The rot set in quickly after the replacement of David Dimbleby by Fiona Bruce. In episode two, the “neutral” presenter wellied into guest Diane Abbott about Labour’s parlous state in the polls even though the party was level pegging with the Tories. Aunty was then forced to admit Fiona Bruce did refer to Abbott’s ‘personal and political relationships’ in the pre-show warm-up but insisted the presenter didn’t suggest the shadow home secretary got a frontbench role because of her previous closeness to Jeremy Corbyn.

Astonishingly, Question Time seems to have got away with that highly unsatisfactory answer… until Motherwell.

Scottish eyebrows were already raised at the unionist-heavy composition of the panel; Michael Forsyth of the Conservatives, Labour’s Anneliese Dodds, the SNP’s Fiona Hyslop, fashion model Eunice Olumide and journalist Hugo Rifkind.

One question for the SNP is why they let a Cabinet Secretary take part in such a nakedly skewed panel.

My guess is that producers insisted Brexit not independence would be the main subject and thus the balance-demanding political faultline of the night. But independence was bound to come up and although Olumide is apparently a Yes voter– she tweeted later “Wish I had got the chance to say more about Scotland and independence” - Fiona Hyslop found herself isolated and outnumbered when Billy Mitchell was encouraged to hold forth.

Olumide was excellent on the question of Liam Neeson and doubtless that’s why she was asked on. But independence needed another sharp-elbowed political operator ready to butt in without permission, because Question Time is a daunting arena in which only politicians and seasoned perfomers really thrive.

Not my opinion but that of 18 year-old Jude Wilkinson who was an audience member some weeks earlier in Winchester;

“I did not speak up to disagree because speaking out is hard in an environment where unrepresentative audiences thunder applause for absurd arguments.

The rush to insert adrenaline into rational debate is destructive to democracy. It is as though debate on matters of national policy is being done in a playground; shout the loudest and you will win the argument. It felt utterly intimidating, stepping into the lion’s den.”

And in Motherwell it was a highly unrepresentative lion’s den. Leaving the issue of independence to one side, North Lanarkshire like every other council area in Scotland backed Remain (61.7 per cent in Motherwell). Yet the programme was full of noisy Leave voters.

This determination to impose a UK balance on each local audience is Question Time’s biggest problem.

Its editors don’t recognise the importance of place (local issues are usually vetoed) which means they don’t recognise the reality of local opinion, which means they resort to the tawdry business of bussing in part of the audience almost every week to ensure “balance”.

This is a practice the new weekly Scottish Question Time programme should not adopt. If it is broadcasting almost every week, then a genuinely Yes-leaning venue like Dundee can be balanced by visiting a genuinely No-leaning venue like Kelso the following week, achieving neutrality over time and – far more importantly – achieving credibility every week.

If BBC Scotland’s new panel programme encourages the full diversity of Scotland to be properly heard and explores domestic and international issues in addition to Brexit and independence it’ll be a dead-cert winner. But that now depends entirely on BBC Scotland dumping not tartanising the present, tired UK format. Thanks to Question Time’s recent string of failures on the neutrality front, authenticity is now far more important for the new BBC Scotland programme than aping Aunty to produce pointless screaming matches with imported bams or a dreary sameness. It would also be life-enhancing and politically important if BBC Scotland axed the UK ban on local places raising their own local issues.

Worryingly though, it doesn’t look as if this new direction is likely to happen. According to respected health journalist Pennie Taylor, serial audience member Billy Mitchell was in the audience for a pilot episode of the new Question Time, filmed at Edinburgh’s Napier University last week.

If true, that is unbelievable and BBC Scotland should admit its mistake. Otherwise the press and public will suspect the new channel is seeking notoriety, sensationalism and confrontation in a desperatye attempot to attract younger viewers. Not good for an important new programme on a publicly-funded new channel.

Far better to go where UK Question Time fears to tread, and bring panel discussions into the modern world, occupied by intelligent Scots in real places with real and diverse political outlooks.