Being in the audience for BBC Question Time


What the cameras don’t show you (see here if you want to watch the show again)

I got the idea for this from @LatentExistence who blogged about his experience in the audience here. #BBCQT came to my home town of Cambridge, and I applied for a ticket. (See here).

High security

Given Puffles’ Twitter following, I wanted to see if I could get Puffles into the audience. But the signs were really ominous as soon as I arrived at the Guildhall. The front of house staff came across as really unfriendly – the most unfriendly I’ve seen at events at the Guildhall. The security checks – bag searches, ID checks and body scanners – made the audience feel much more tense in the waiting area (the small hall in the Guildhall) than we would otherwise have been. Puffles had no chance. Part of me felt both offended and somewhat violated because they were coming to ***my hometown*** and imposing such checks, as opposed to me going to an existing secure building somewhere far away. It’s not as if Puffles hadn’t been in the Guildhall on many previous occasions! On the other hand, storm in teacup. I chose not to make a fuss – leaving it to Puffles’ followers to make some Twitter-noise instead. (It’s more fun that way!)

The long wait

Understandably the producers try to get a cross-section of society to come to their shows. They have to so you don’t have a politically-biased audience. Hence why some of us raised eyebrows when what looked like the local Young Tory Massiv turned up and gathered together in identikit suits and ties. It looked really suspicious – about six of them all in deep conversation as if they were plotting on how to ambush a panellist in a manner that some far-left parties were accused of doing at public meetings when I lived in Brighton. I was later to find out from one of the audience who spoke to one of them that they were sixth-formers from a private school outside of the county. Which then made me wonder why we didn’t have many local sixth formers in the audience.

Dimbleby’s warm-up

This for me was the main highlight – David Dimbleby put the audience completely at ease with a short talk about how everything was going to proceed. He was after all, the only face in the room that was recognisable to everyone. At the same time, he had a presence in the small hall that allowed everyone to relax. Yes, we were all going to be on national TV with hundreds of thousands of people watching, and yes, for most of the people in the room this was a new experience. (Myself included). The five minute talk he gave to us completely changed the atmosphere in the room – and as a result got the audience talking to each other, something that was lacking before.

The technicians’ ballet performance

If you want to know why everything seems to go so smoothly on the telly, it is because the technicians perform something that is little short of a choreographed dance around the audience as the show is taking place. There were five difference cameras, two of which were mobile had people carrying the long wires. The two pairs of cameras and their able assistants were like ballroom dancers floating silently up and down the steps of the temporary seating scaffold. Around them, the boom operators moved microphones around and above people’s heads but still out of sight of the cameras, as if the microphones themselves were trapeze artists carrying out their dances on the high wires.

The floor manager’s comedy performance

In the sound-checking, we went through a rehearsal that was actually far more fun than the actual show. It sort of attempted to be a cross between the Jerry Springer Show crossed with Question Time, with audience volunteers playing the panellists and the rest of us coming up with as many random solutions to a particular crisis as we possibly could. We got points for various klaxons – ‘National Service’ being one, as well as losing them for reasons best known to the players of ‘Mornington Crescent’.

Questions are selected

When I saw that two of the six sixth formers were selected to ask questions, and spotted that only one woman was asked out of all the questioners, I felt a little uncomfortable. When we heard that the running order was going to be the two young chaps going first, the first thing I thought was how Twitter was going to respond. Finding out that they were still at sixth form – something the watchers of the show were never told at the time – made me fear even more about the reaction Twitter was going to give them.

Dimbleby told us that the questions were selected by the producers based on which were the most popular themes that came up. As soon as he mentioned that, I knew that my question had zero chance of being asked. It also made me think about the level of political discourse in the mainstream media.

The show kicks off

There were no explicit gaps in the filming. The whole thing was shot in one complete take. As Dimbleby said, one hour of debate, one hour of filming. I won’t pretend I was somewhat disappointed by the politicians selected for the panel. We had:

As far as Labour and the Conservatives went, I wanted front-benchers that the audience could sink their teeth into. ie people with policy responsibility for their party. At least that way you can hold the decision-makers to account for their actions.

Jo and Diane got stuck into the debate straight away over fuel poverty, and then with a few members of the audience with one side saying the other did not understand how markets functioned, and the other saying their opponents didn’t understand the impact high fuel prices were having on people – especially those in fuel poverty. (Note the definition).

From my perspective on the top row at the back, it was Diane, Jo and Sarah that seemed to contribute most of the energy to the show. A number of people commented on the body language of the panellists as they walked in. Adam Afriyie in particular looked very tense & ill-at-ease -as well he might given the headlines of the day. As the show started, it was as if he was waiting for Dimbleby to kick him over what is now being seen as a politically ill-judged move. Diane Abbott on the other hand seemed less worried about an item Dimbleby raised from 10 years ago about the schooling of here son. (See here). It felt like she’d learnt to take the political kick & waited for things to move on. As for Matthew Parris, I was disappointed with his input. I couldn’t help but feel from his comments, tone and body-language that he didn’t really want to be there. Understandable perhaps given the poor quality of the debate?

The poor quality of the debate

Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by some of the gatherings that I have been to, but the quality of debate really didn’t hold my interest. As a member of the audience you have 15 seconds to make your point – or rather 15 seconds in which not to make an idiot of yourself. When the room is full of so many points that you want to take issue with, the challenge is trying to limit yourself to just the one. Which is what I did.

The man in the red blazer!

Yeah – that was me. Red blazer, black suit, red tie. Yes that was deliberate – to ensure that from quite a distance away, David Dimbleby could easily spot me and describe what I was wearing. Bear in mind that although the dress code was ‘smart casual’, many men do turn up in suits of a similar colour. Mistakenly, a number of people on Twitter thought I had turned up in a red suit – have a look at the generous and not-so-generous comments here. On the TV screen, you could only see my head and shoulders when I put the question. You couldn’t see the rest of the outfit. If you could, people would have noticed the matching red shoes!

Basically I commented on the question as to whether the recent political reshuffles were little more than window-dressing. I said that reshuffles were very disruptive to the civil service and also meant that no politicians were able to gain expertise in their policy fields. This left the policy areas open to being captured by wealthy interests. I cited two studies by the Institute for Government (see here) and the Public Administration Select Committee – though the Twitter account ‘Full Fact’ referred to this study by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. (I got my select committees mixed up).

15 seconds of infamy, let’s go home.

It was an interesting insight into how a TV programme was made, but I came away feeling that I wouldn’t apply to be in the show’s audience again. This was partly due to not being able to put the question I wanted to ask to the panel, but also a dissatisfaction with the quality of, and the artificially adversarial nature of the debate.

“What question did you want to ask?”

I wanted to ask about the Transparency in Lobbying Bill – see here. The day before the show was broadcast, the Bill completed its final and very controversial stages in the House of Commons. I shredded the Bill here. I wanted to put a very specific question to the panel, and it was this:

“Why has the House of Commons utterly failed in its public duty to ensure the Transparency in Lobbying Bill receive proper scrutiny?”

I then wanted to follow this up asking Jo Swinson (who defended the Bill in the short committee stage) and Adam Afriyie as to why – and without referring to any political party, the whips or conventions of collective responsibility, why they felt three afternoons were long enough for scrutiny despite the very serious concerns of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, and from the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights – to say nothing of the widespread opposition from across the political spectrum.

So, if any of the panellists are reading this, please tweet your answers to @Puffles2010 or fill in the comments box and I’ll upload them.

Is there a better way to have more informed political debate on TV?

I think there’s room for a regular TV show – even if it’s on BBC Parliament – to have a selection of politicians and panellists to unpick a single issue for a good 1 hour or 90 minutes. In a nutshell, get the political grand-standing out of the way and get into the detail. Share the key texts informing the debate with the panellists and link them up online so we’re all looking at the same evidence bases. Introduce the topic in a similar way that BBC Free Speech does. Because as things stand, the soundbite-exchange/ lines-to-take-tennis is a deeply unsatisfactory method of public political discourse.


8 thoughts on “Being in the audience for BBC Question Time

  1. Thanks for this, very interesting, and the red suit thing is very funny. I agree about the lines-to-take tennis – especially when many of the panellists are so often ill informed on the complexity and detail of particular issues, and are relatively inexperienced. I think sharing a common evidence base online is a brilliant idea – so many of these debates become sterile as panellists exchange dubious statistics. Has it ever been tried do you know?

  2. Great right-up. I’ll now have to watch on catch-up as I missed it last night. The best chance you have of getting your question is to pick one of the top news topics that is certain to be raised and phrase it in an interesting, quirky or even humorous way.

  3. I was in the audience, infact I asked the now famous and Twitter trending question about the reshuffle window dressing! The debate will continue on my radio show on Cambridge 105, Tuesday 15 October from 1pm!

  4. I’ve applied six times and never been offered the opportunity to be in the audience. I have lodged an official complaint with the BBC about it yesterday. When Dimbleby says “If you’d like to be in the audience …” etc he makes it sound like a formality.

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