Cambridge Regional College Students question Cambridgeshire councillors


The view from the director’s box as further education students at Cambridge Regional College give local politicians a television media masterclass – and comprehensively myth-bust the stereotype that media is an ‘easy’ subject.

The whole show is below:

First of all, a big ***Well done*** to students (and their teachers & mentors) for producing such a professional production of ‘Question Cambridgeshire’ – our first local version of Question Time. To make it crystal clear, this wasn’t a simulation or some sort of ‘staged learning experience’ for young people: this was the real deal. This was local politicians being put on the spot by students at the college in a production filmed inside the college’s in house TV studio – fully equipped with the sort of equipment you would expect to see in a small professional media firm. And unlike me with digital media at the moment, they knew how to use their kit. Sabrine Hubbard of Cambridge Regional College explains more below:

(I’ve not edited the footage above – hence me saying ‘and cut’ at the end).

The BBC Question Time format

Rather than being on the studio floor, I took up a position inside the director’s box. Although the reason for this was me having to leave early for a medical appointment, (they lock the studio doors when filming – as is standard), it ended up being a very fortunate thing. This was because I had already been in the audience for when Question Time came to Cambridge in October 2013 – see what I found out about TV production here. What I had not seen until today was what happens in the director’s box during the live broadcasting (in this case online) of a show. The time inside the small room watching the students go about their live broadcast was an education in itself.

Just as politicians on the panel go into a mental ‘zone’ (as I experienced at Kings College in the 2014 local council election campaign), the same was true of the students as the clock counted down to the commencement of broadcasting. You could feel the tension too – in particular when small mistakes were made (as they inevitably are – we’re human). Concentration from the students was as total as it was exhausting. Combining strict time constraints – they had 60 minutes of broadcast time – with multitasking made for a very pressurised environment. What was the most draining – particularly for the students leading on the production, was having to be aware of so many things going on at the same time, having to process all of that and knowing that there were their fellow students responsible for lighting, cameras and sound who were completely reliant on their instructions.

Cllr Amanda Taylor (@Librallady on Twitter) as seen on screens inside the director's box
Cllr Amanda Taylor (@Librallady on Twitter) as seen on screens inside the director’s box

“Did the politicians say anything interesting?”

To be honest I wasn’t paying too much attention to what they were saying – I was busy watching and learning from the students. Only on a couple of occasions did I tip off the students as to which politician to focus on for ‘reaction shots’ when say a panellist made a controversial comment or criticised an opponent’s policy. The challenge the students faced with picking reaction shots was anticipation. Long time Cambridgeshire politics watchers might be able to pick out who was likely to give which face/body language reactions to given comments, but there is almost no chance that students would have had the chance to have followed local politics as closely. For a start, some of the panellists were elected councillors before many of the students were born.

As far as ward representation went, there were three councillors from Cambridge – Ashley Ward (Labour), Amanda Taylor (Lib Dem) and John Hipkin (Independent). Steve Count (Conservative) and Peter Reeve (UKIP) were from outside Cambridge/South Cambs – the towns of March and Ramsay respectively. Although I picked up bits of what councillors said, I don’t feel that it’s my place to pass comment – not least because I wasn’t paying attention. The people whose comments matter the most are the students. They came up with the questions, and they selected the best of them to put to the councillors.

Can we make this an annual/bi-annual or even a termly event please?

Yes – really. It was that impressive.

The media production experience alone merits more frequent events like this – and that’s before we’ve even mentioned awareness of elected councillors and local democracy. In Cambridgeshire, the simple fact is that we don’t have Question Time-style events where local councillors have to represent their local political parties alone, and have to look into the eyeballs of a constituency of people that are chronically under-represented in politics. What struck me about this event was how the power was with the students, not the politicians. They decided the questions and the format – though I would have liked to have seen more interaction between the panellists and the students in the audience. When you are up there on a stage or platform faced with an unfamiliar audience, the dynamics are very different to normal council meetings.

At Cambridge City Council area committee meetings (see here), the power is with the political parties. As an ordinary citizen you are going into a political lions’ den. Some local people have privately said to me they fear being mocked or being responded to aggressively at such meetings by politicians. Understandable given how politics and Parliament are reported in the mainstream media. As a result, the few people that turn up and speak regularly are those that either know many of the councillors socially, those that are confident enough public speakers &/or those that are particular passionate on a single issue or theme – such as cycling. For example The Cambridge Cycling Campaign regularly has (very well-informed and educated) campaigners at such meetings. For quite some time I’ve been saying that Cambridge in particular needs to try different things to strengthen our local democracy. Credit to Cambridge Regional College students for being the change they want to see: They put together something that had not been done before and the results were brilliant.




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