Is there bias on BBC Question Time?

Phil Burton-Cartledge has crunched the numbers on the political persuasions of the guests on the BBC's flagship politics programme.

Is the BBC in thrall to the liberal establishment? Do right-wingers take to the telly in disproportionate numbers? Does it really deserve its Tory epithet, "Buggers Broadcasting Communism"? Or is the BBC getting it about right in striking an impartial balance? Whichever way you look at it, these are not a set of questions likely to be settled by a single blog post.

But one place you might want to look for evidence of  BBC bias is its flagship politics programme, Question Time. More specifically, if there is a leaning to the left or the right, this could be clarified by the political affiliations and loyalties of its guests.

Below are the top ten recurring guests by category since 4th December, 2008 - the date from which consistent and complete evidence of panelists are easily available. This gives us just shy of four years worth of data. Please note I have excluded Question Time's annual forays to Northern Ireland from the figures.

As of 22 November, 362 individuals have occupied 704 panel slots. For those interested in gender and political participation, only 98 guests have been women. These between them have occupied 235 slots.

The most frequently-featured guests by party are:

Conservatives
Ken Clarke (10)
Theresa May (8)
Sayeeda Warsi (7)
Iain Duncan Smith (6)
Liam Fox (6)

Labour
Caroline Flint (10)
Peter Hain (8)
Diane Abbott (7)
Andy Burnham (7)
Alan Johnson (7)

Liberal Democrats
Vince Cable (12)
Chris Huhne (7)
Shirley Williams (7)
Paddy Ashdown (6) Menzies Campbell (6) Charles Kennedy (6) Simon Hughes (6) Jo Swinson (6) Sarah Teather (6)

Others
Nigel Farage (11)
Caroline Lucas (8)
Nicola Sturgeon (7)
Elfyn Llwyd (5)
George Galloway (4) Alex Salmond (4) Leanne Wood (4)

The overall top five looks like this:

Vince Cable (12)
Nigel Farage (11)
Ken Clarke (10)
Caroline Flint (10)
Peter Hain (8) Caroline Lucas (8) Theresa May (8)

In total, there have been 47 Conservative politicians occupying 137 slots (of whom 16 were women taking 41 slots), 51 Labour with 148 slots (17 women taking 51 slots), 31 LibDems with 109 slots (9 women and 33 slots), and 18 Other taking 57 slots (7 women and 25 slots).

A slight advantage for Labour perhaps, but hardly indicative of a systematic political bias - and even less so if you strip out the Question Time dedicated to the Labour leadership election in 2010.

Matters are skewed when you introduce other categories of guests. We have trade unionists (7 occupying 9 slots), business people (23 and 32 slots), celebrities (31 and 46 slots), campaigners and wonks (4 taking 11 slots), 'other' (authors, scientists, clergy, retired military, etc. - 23 taking 29 slots), and by far the largest category, journalists (61 occupying 127 slots (21 women and 42 slots)).

Would you like to see who the five most frequently-featured journalists are?

Kelvin MacKenzie (8)
Melanie Phillips (6)
Janet Street Porter (6)
Mehdi Hasan (5)
Peter Hitchens (5)
Douglas Murray (5)

Balance-wise the right outweigh the left here, but that could be a freak of the figures, right? No. Of the 61 journalists, 40 could be described as explicitly political writers. 27 are of the right, and 13 are liberal/left. Rightwing journalists took 64 slots, and the liberal/left 31. For whatever reason, not only are hacks overrepresented on the Question Time panel, but Tory-leaning journalists outnumber their liberal and Labour-leaning contributors by over two to one.

The balance is not addressed by the other category of guests. Of the 31 celebs, 18 have definite views that align one way or the other. Six are on the right, and 12 of the liberal/left. The former had 13 slots, and the latter 16.

There are other questions that need to be asked. The predominance of business people over trade union voices came as no surprise at all. But come on, leading trade unionists combined have been on less than Nigel Farage! In case anyone needs reminding, trade unions are the largest voluntary organisations in civil society with a combined membership of some six million. Farage is the leader of a party whose supporters can fit into my living room. And if that wasn't bad enough, his odious minion Paul Nuttall has been on twice too. So why are UKIP way overrepresented on the panel and a mass movement of millions virtually ignored?

Question Time is the most-watched political programme in these islands. An appearance on the panel sacralises you as a commentator or as a politician/political party of serious standing. You become part of the BBC's construction of "official Britain", of the country's image it contrives to reflect. So in this media-saturated age, questions of gender and political underrepresentation are important.

Being the sad geek that I am, I shall revisit this in a year's time (provided the blog's still going) to see if there's been any evidence of a shift.

In the mean time, feel free to join me in the traditional Thursday night tweet-a-long.

This piece first appeared on Phil Burton-Cartledge's blog, A Very Public Sociologist. He tweets as @philbc3.

David Dimbleby, host of Question Time. Photograph: BBC

Phil Burton-Cartledge blogs at All That Is Solid and lectures at the University of Derby. He tweets as @philbc3.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.