The BBC, and a Question Time of balance

There has been a lot written about the Dundee edition of Question Time. You know, the one that for some was eerily devoid of Dundonian accents. To one extreme, some say that it is a case of clear Unionist bias at the BBC. While others have contended that the furore over the program shows the inherent bigotry of Independence supporters. I haven’t commented on the subject till now, mainly because I can no longer bring myself to watch the reactionary, divisive cringefest that is Question Time. Reading the many report though, the phenomenon did strike me as strange. I used to watch the show every week and I don’t remember seeing one that was light on local accents.

I only understood why there were so few Dundee brogues yesterday when I read the letter the BBC has been sending out to those who complained. Here is the content of the letter they received with the key part highlighted.

Thank you for contacting us about Question Time held in Dundee on 10th March 2016.

We gather some viewers were concerned that the audience was not representative of Dundee and that therefore the discussion was biased.

The programme, as with all editions of Question Time, was open to people from surrounding areas as well as those living in the city where it took place. We do aim for a wide variety of views on different subjects to be heard on Question Time. The audience included SNP, Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats, Greens, UKIP and Scottish Socialist Party voters, reflecting political opinion across Scotland. On the question of the EU referendum the audience was balanced with equal numbers of ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ supporters and a fewer number of undecided people. The BBC is obliged to cover the debate around Europe in a balanced and impartial way at this time.

There was plenty of applause for all sides in the debate. Whoever speaks from the Question Time audience is down to the dynamic on the night; who puts their hands up, who claps loudest and so on.

This means that though the audience was balanced; viewers may have felt that those asking questions represented the view of the complete audience. This is not the case, but we appreciate you contacting us with your concern in this matter.

It is now clear that the lack of Dundonian voices came, not from a Unionist conspiracy, but a legitimate attempt to balance the debate in terms of the EU referendum.

Recent polling shows that in the North East, those most likely to be anti EU are Conservative voters and, it goes without saying, UKIP voters. While almost half in the region say they will vote for the SNP in the Holyrood elections, an attempt to balance the audience in terms of the EU debate could have led to a Unionist skew. Especially when you consider Lib Dem and Labour voters would make up a large part of the pro EU segment of the audience as those parties are the most pro EU.

We could just leave it there and say the audience was not representative of Dundee but it is understandable due to the reasons mentioned. The audience was fair in the terms set out by the BBC.

However, I would say this leads to more questions than answers.

For instance.

  • Why was there no attempt to artificially balance the panel if the aim was to balance the show in terms of EU voting intention? After all it is the panel who speak the most. The panel was representative of the mainstream Scottish political pro EU view which meant it was biased in terms of a remain vote.
  • Why is the Scottish election being usurped by the EU referendum coverage when the Scottish election is to be held first? Any attempt to balance the election in favour of the EU referendum would inevitably bias the debate in other key Scottish political areas, namely the Scottish election and the still lingering question of Scottish Independence. If you look at the Question Time audience application form there is no question on Scottish Elections. Only the UK election and EU referendum. So there is clearly no attempt to balance things in regards to Holyrood voting intentions which seems weird given the proximity of the vote.
  • If the debate was to be balanced in terms of EU referendum opinion, then why did the debate cover so many other topics. The debate also covered the deficit in Scotland, oil revenues, employment, and NHS spending and there is no point having a balanced EU audience for those.
  • What is the point of moving Question Time around the UK, if the audience is not going to reflect the opinion of the area that it is shot in? When I did watch the program religiously in the past the one thing it was good for was seeing the mood and the politics of different parts of the country.
  • Finally, balance is not giving equal opinion to two opposing views. The media make this mistake all of the time when they have debates. They will give a Creationist the same platform as a Darwinist or they will allow a climate change denier the same coverage as a climate scientist. The two views don’t deserve balance as they are not equally representative of the truth. This can be applied to the Dundee Question Time. Presenting a fake version of Dundee as a place that is balanced equally on the EU question does not represent the truth of Dundee. Surely the audience are smart enough to realise that Dundee is pro EU but that Dundee doesn’t represent the UK as a whole?

The strange audience mix on the Dundee Question time then is perhaps understandable in light of the criteria used to select the audience. However, I would argue that Question Time should have biased audiences as the audiences should reflect the politics and feelings of the area of the UK it is broadcast from. If the BBC wish to have balance in favour of the EU referendum then they should seek that balance in the panel and not the audience. If the audience remains true to the place it is filmed, then any regular viewer of Question Time will get a diverse range of opinions as the weeks progress. They will also get a feel of how consensus about issues differs in different parts of the country.

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Bobby Hainey

Joint founder of Autonomyscotland. In my spare time I enjoy Road Cycling, Munro bagging and beer.

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1 Comment on "The BBC, and a Question Time of balance"

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B howlett
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Note you can never get the truth from any party member on the panel, but you may get the true reply if the person is not a member of any party

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