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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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.