Question Time is the programme they all want to present. It’s seen as the ultimate destination for any broadcaster, as prized as being in the chair for an election or royal event – and it’s the signal that “you’ve made it”. Partly that’s because of the very limited roster of anchors over the decades: just Robin Day, Peter Sissons and David Dimbleby. It’s also because they all had immense stature through their other roles: Day as television’s inquisitor in chief, Sissons as the high profile signing from ITN and Dimbleby as broadcasting royalty and occupier of all the top seats in the BBC kingdom. That’s why many a star’s heart will be beating a little faster in the coming days, waiting for that call from the boss.
It’s a bit odd, when looked at dispassionately, because Question Time as a programme is not the force it once was. The BBC has shunted it later in the schedules, so it now ends not long before midnight. The cast lists have become patchier, so the obscurity of many of the current parliamentary frontbenchers is compounded by the unwillingness to appear of the few big beasts. It’s no longer a show where the Chancellor or Foreign Secretary believe it’s in their interest to turn up. They may be right in that some editions of the programme, especially last year immediately after the election, featured a baying studio audience and particularly rancorous exchanges between the panellists. Or you run the risk of looking daft alongside the comedian or sportsperson who’s been booked for light relief. Then stir in the fact that the programme tours the country, and the host has to pretend to be really pleased to be in Llandudno on a wet Thursday night, and you wonder why anyone would be so eager to take on the role.
Some of this can be addressed irrespective of who presents. Question Time is under the fresh editorship of Hilary O’Neill, a seasoned BBC warrior who favours a serious agenda, and she will make her mark. In particular, I hope she will build the role for expertise within the programme so that discussions – especially around Brexit – include people who know what they’re talking about, and challenge the evasions of the politicians or the wishful thinking of the audience. She should also woo the more serious and thoughtful of our leaders back onto the programme, so that there’s the crackle of something that really matters rather than a try-out for a junior minister. And the BBC could help by scheduling the programme in a prime time 9pm slot. Many 9 o’clock programmes in other genres have such low audiences by traditional standards that Question Time would be both a credible performer in ratings terms – and a conspicuous piece of public service.
But the choice of the next presenter is key. The truth is that Dimbleby has been very good indeed, and remains on top form. I thought it was time that he handed over the election programming, but there was no sense that he was losing energy on Question Time. On the rare occasions that others have stood in, it’s clear how difficult the role is – to combine being a champion of the audience, a challenger of the politicians and all the time maintaining a light touch within a current affairs format. It also has to be someone that viewers like spending time with, and this adds up to the classic case of being a hard act to follow.
My instinct is that the BBC should stick by its Question Time traditions and go for a presenter of real, established authority. This isn’t the job for someone who hasn’t successfully anchored a flagship programme already. The BBC is fortunate that it has a raft of senior women to choose from alongside its male stars: Emily Maitlis, Kirsty Young (excellent at the Royal Wedding) and Kirsty Wark (underused by Newsnight) are among the most obvious. They’ve also all shown an ability to work with a live audience, which is crucial because another of Dimbleby’s abilities is shutting up the vociferous troublemaker in row three.
This is the biggest talent decision so far for Fran Unsworth, who became director of BBC News earlier this year. She may well be thinking about the presenter jigsaw: who moves from which programme, and who ends up getting the consolation prizes even if they don’t inherit the Dimbleby mantle. That is normal BBC management business. But we must hope that the new presenter is also part of the revitalisation of Question Time that makes it once again “must watch” television in an era when those national moments are more important than ever. Quite a task, but a real opportunity.