What a difference four and a half months makes: back in September last year, Question Time’s new host Fiona Bruce could still muster some optimism about the BBC’s supposedly flagship political debate offering, although she conceded “We are just so angry … And people feel so let down and not listened to and unrepresented, on both sides. It is not a happy country at all at the moment”. Now it seems that reality has hit home.
Back then, she was sure that hostilities would cool, but they have not. Now she has looked back and mused “I’m all for a passionate debate, and sometimes things can be heated, which is fine, up to a point. As long as we remember that we are human beings … I feel very strongly about that. I hadn’t anticipated that I would spend so much of my time last year saying, ‘we don’t talk to each other like this.’” And there is more.
Not only has there been a former National Front candidate allowed to rant uninterrupted - after being sat front and centre in the audience - but there have also been Laurence Fox accusing a mixed race audience member of being racist, the invention from Isabel Oakeshott and her now former sidekick Steven Edginton in attacking Diane Abbott, and a whole series of mainly right-wing plants in the show’s audience.
One particular plant, Billy Mitchell, was identified so quickly and easily in February last year that jokes were made to the effect that his name should be included in the end of show credits. And it is he who brings us to the reason why Ms Bruce needs to look to the show’s production team if she wishes to address that “level of toxicity”.
Question Time has for some time been produced for the BBC by Mentorn Media, who also produce The Big Questions, which airs on Sunday mornings, fronted by Nicky Campbell. They invited Billy Mitchell. And it is Alison Fuller Pedley of Mentorn who has been responsible for selecting the show’s audience. On this, she has previous.
As Open Democracy told back in late 2016, “In September, Pedley had invited the Boston, Lincolnshire EDL to apply for the show’s audience - drawing complaints from anti-racist campaigners and local MP Matt Warman. The backbencher was told the show approached the EDL repeatedly, but contacted neither the Conservatives nor any other local group”. Boston has been the location of hostility to migrants from EU member states.
There was more. “Far-right Islamophobe Douglas Murray is ‘always a great panellist’ on Question Time, Pedley writes. She ‘likes’ far-right journalists Melanie Phillips and ‘shock jock’ Jon Gaunt. In May, she ‘liked’ a clip of Nigel Farage obliquely excusing violence. The same month, she encouraged Brexiteers ‘Better Off Out’ and UKIP South Leicestershire to join a Channel 4 audience”. Anyone see where the toxicity comes from now?
As Open Democracy concludes, “Maybe that’s what broadcasters want - after all, fireworks make ‘good TV’. But good TV does not equal good democracy”. Ms Fuller Pedley also likes to see some more liberal voices on the programme, but the impression is given that there is an inherent desire to see the occasional dust-up to chase ratings.
If Fiona Bruce is concerned about addressing that “level of toxicity”, she has a straightforward way of doing it: tell Mentorn to stop chasing extremists. Job done.
Enjoy your visit to Zelo Street? You can help this truly independent blog carry on talking truth to power, while retaining its sense of humour, by adding to its Just Giving page at
[The Legalballs Fund has now closed]