It seems the latest series of BBC Question Time is destined to be dogged by controversy - not all of it accidental. Not satisfied with the episode which ended up with Diane Abbott having to complain about her treatment, and the recurring appearance of a locally notorious Loyalist activist when the programme visits central Scotland, there has also been the problem that rather a lot of right-leaning plants appear in the studio audience.
Then last Thursday came the all-too-obvious giveaway moment when panellist Owen Jones was asked a completely pointless question by a very insistent audience member. He should apologise on behalf of the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner for some refurbishment work done at Police HQ. Er, what? Jones subsequently identified the questioner as Richard Tasker, a Tory activist and former candidate.
Then he saw Tasker claiming that Home Secretary Sajid Javid had thanked him for “shutting him up” (this Tweet was later deleted). But by this time, the discovery process was well advanced, with Jones soon finding that Tasker was Vice Chairman of Dudley North Conservatives. From there, another plant was soon discovered.
“Oh look. Remember the guy who at the end of #bbcqt outrageously and falsely accused @DawnButlerBrent and @DavidLammy of being racist against white people? Here he is with @sajidjavid. I'd imagine he's yet another Tory activist. Twitter, do your work”. By now, it was clear that the plant infestation was not restricted to one gobby activist.
Jones confirmed this when he told “I thought it was a bit [suspicious] when Chris Grayling - CHRIS GRAYLING, a man slightly more unpopular than cholera - got applauded in the non broadcasted warm-up question. Turns out a big chunk of the audience was basically a meeting of the local Conservative Association!” Well, quite.
It got worse - well, for the BBC and all those Tories, anyway - as Jones then revealed “At least three of the people who asked questions on @bbcquestiontime last Thursday were local Tory activists; possibly four”. They weren’t just activists, though, as his next reveal showed. “Oh it gets better, at least three of the people who asked questions weren't just Tory activists, they were local Tory council candidates”.
That was thanks to Dudley Labour Group, who claimed “And we in Dudley can confirm we know three of them are Dudley local election candidates. I'm sure we will confirm others in coming days. None of them declared in their questions they were [Tory] activists”. Meanwhile, Jones had found another: “The tally keeps going up. Four of the people who asked questions on Question Time last week in Dudley were local Conservative activists”.
The problem for the BBC - if the claim by the Dudley Labour Group is true - is that we now have Tory activists failing to reveal their political activities, and perhaps not even their party membership, when applying to be part of the Question Time audience. It already costs the production team significant amounts of money to put on the show; if the audience has then to be more extensively vetted, those costs could become prohibitive.
Will the Tories curb the enthusiasm of their local activists? Will Labour, having seen what the game now is, retaliate in kind? Will this be the beginning of the end for the programme? Or will it celebrate 40 years on air next September? Watch this space.
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