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21 November 2018

How Brexit exposes the decline of BBC Question Time

In this febrile atmosphere, the longer-form current affairs programmes have come into their own.

By Roger Mosey

Brexit has turned out to be good news for broadcasters, at least. Last Wednesday, as the marathon cabinet meeting ran on, an unusually high figure of 5.2 million viewers tuned in to the BBC news at 6pm. The following day, as ministers seemingly resigned on the hour every hour, a spike of 14.8 million users visited the BBC News website; and a total of 3.4 million people watched Theresa May’s Downing Street news conference on BBC Two and the News Channel. Sky News says these events brought its biggest digital engagement of the year across its website and app.

This period has shown the value of rolling news services. Dominic Raab’s resignation was confirmed at the very end of the Today programme, but Radio 4 stuck to its schedule and went to a discussion about the poet Horace without so much as a mention for the continuing news coverage on BBC 5 Live. Strikingly, the commercial news stations were rewarded with exclusive prime ministerial interviews. Theresa May appeared live on LBC’s breakfast show with Nick Ferrari on Friday, leaving the Today programme with housing minister James Brokenshire and then having to replay chunks of May’s phone-in from its rival station. On the Sunday talk shows, the prime minister turned up on Sky News to be interviewed by Sophy Ridge, while Andrew Marr’s show had no cabinet minister at all. The headlines generated by the two May appearances, and by Jeremy Corbyn’s slot on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday, show that the BBC has its work cut out if it wants to remain the agenda-setting national broadcaster.

Across the channels, the coverage was often breathless and driven by Westminster. There is nothing political correspondents love more than leadership challenges and rebellions within parties, and as soon as the putative deal was announced the hunt was on for people to criticise it, whether or not they had read the documentation and irrespective of the logic of their criticism. The Brexit-supporting Nadine Dorries was featured on Sky bemoaning the lack of British MEPs or commissioners after Brexit, to the incredulity of many on social media. On the day that Dominic Raab resigned over serious issues of policy and the Prime Minister gave a lengthy news conference about the choices facing the country, the BBC decided that Jacob Rees-Mogg deserved the prime place at the top of its bulletins. The internal feuds of the Conservative Party, significant though they are, squeezed out the voices of the other parties – and it was the European Reform Group rebels who sucked up the oxygen of publicity. The advocates of No Deal are a small minority within the Commons, and the country’s fate rests with the hundreds of MPs who want some kind of deal or to remain in the EU, but that was not how it seemed if you watched the television news.

In this febrile atmosphere, the longer-form current affairs programmes such as Channel 4 News and Newsnight came into their own. Newsnight in particular had an exceptional week. It has a new editor: Esmé Wren, who worked there in its heyday 20 years ago but most recently was head of politics at Sky News. She and her team – with Emily Maitlis increasingly authoritative as presenter – captured the scale of the story, devoting all their airtime to it most nights and assembling first-rate panels to accompany the political interviews. It was on Newsnight that Joe Owen of the Institute for Government pointed out that there were “quite big wins in there” for May’s team, and that the agreement more or less hit the four tests she had set herself earlier in the year in the Commons. Similarly, Georgina Wright from Chatham House noted that in some areas the EU had compromised and it had, after all, come up with a bespoke model.

This kind of analysis about the future of Britain and Europe matters more to voters than the brandishing of letters saying “she doesn’t listen”. Political correspondents see the issues first through the prism of May, Corbyn and their parties; and then they consider the future of the country. But businesses, consumers and health care professionals and financiers see it the opposite way round. There was a dangerous sense in some of the coverage that the withdrawal agreement was really long and tedious, while political conflict kept the journalistic juices flowing. Question Time once again floundered by not bothering to have any Europe experts on the programme. David Dimbleby did a valiant job in challenging the bluster of the B-list panellists, but what the show needed was someone objective who knew what they were talking about.

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In the past I’ve argued for Question Time to be given a peak time slot, but last week’s edition failed to support the case. It would have been better hidden at 2am. This doesn’t, however, excuse the broadcasters from trying to create more landmark events in their schedules in the coming weeks. If this is the biggest crisis since Suez, the BBC in particular needs to be bold with its programming on BBC One; and it can no longer argue that people won’t tune in for Brexit.

But some of the signs are not promising. BBC News executives are cheesed off by the decision of the television schedulers to move The Andrew Marr Show from its traditional 9am slot on Sunday to 10am. The principal reason was to enable the Match of the Day repeat to attract a better audience. This allowed Sky to move Sophy Ridge to 9am to pre-empt Marr; but worse, according to insiders, is a drop in Marr’s audience of around 250,000 viewers a week. The BBC’s action was silly at this juncture in our politics. It should put Marr back where he belongs, and join the other public service broadcasters in ramping up their commitment to analysis, expertise and the national interest in everything they do. 

Roger Mosey is the master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former head of BBC Television news

This article appears in the 21 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The real Brexit crisis