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Laurie Penny trials Question Time drinking game ... and gets a political hangover

A new drinking game based on the ubiquitous programme gives much away about the robustness of political debate in Westminster.

Like the late, great Douglas Adams's towel-clutching anti-hero Arthur Dent, I never could get the hang of Thursdays. Somehow, most of them end up with me sitting by myself with a ready deadline and a drink of something horrible, shouting at the television. By myself but not, it seems, alone -- because thanks to the magic of the internet, the vicissitudes of modern politics and the boundless capacity of the British to creatively enable one another's alcohol consumption, we now have the cultural phenomenon that is the Question Time drinking game.

It happened like this: the tweeting classes realised that we were all drinking miserably in our living rooms in front of the same long-running political debate show at the same time and it would be much more fun if someone came up with some rules -- so someone did. You can imagine that by the time the show is broadcast -- it's recorded earlier in the evening -- most of the panellists and production team could already be sloshing their way to frantic oblivion, so it's all in good fun.

Dimble Dance

Enough with the preamble: here's how you play. You sit around in front of the telly with epic quantities of corner shop booze and a bunch of friends or, if you're a dynamic young gunslinger like me, by yourself with a bottle of Jameson's and your Twitter feed, and you watch Question Time and imbibe until the staid predictability of mainstream political debate is at all bearable. The rules are subject to amendment, but the principles of the game are sound. While the stirring theme music plays, you down your drink and attempt to do the Dimble Dance, which looks like a cabinet minister having a spasm in an Eighties disco, setting the tone nicely.

You then proceed to drink on the following occasions: every time the veteran chairman, David Dimblebly, attempts to crack a joke. Every time David Dimbleby confuses the gender of a questioner from the audience. Every time David Dimbleby says: "I'm afraid that's all we've got time for". Every time a contributor uses the phrase "political correctness gone mad". Every time a government panellist informs the audience that they "don't really understand what we're trying to do".

You drink again every time a minister blames anything on "the mess Labour left us in", and if the vanishing credibility of this sound bite as an excuse for imposed austerity elicits boos from the audience, which it usually does, you drink twice. This should leave you nicely battered by the time there's a break in questions for Dimbleby to say, with all the confident self-mastery of an Englishman attempting to buy condoms in a Croatian chemist's, "if you'd like to follow us on Twitter, here's our hashtag".

You get to down your drink whenever anyone echoes the sentiment "we're all in this together", or its less cheesy variant "we all have to tighten our belts". This is the most tiresomely enormous lie of our times -- the notion that we've all been living merrily beyond our means and deserve to suffer the consequences together. We may have all been to the same pre-crash party, but some were enjoying the free champagne while the rest of us stood serving drinks and smiling as our money was gambled away.

Now that the inevitable hangover has arrived, it's the rest of us who have to suffer. Meanwhile, our representatives shuffle and equivocate. Unfortunately, the fact that we can have a drinking game based on a few stock platitudes and still be proto-paralytic by the time the credits roll on Question Time says a great deal about the robustness of political debate in Westminster.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.