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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit