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14 December 2020

How the new Question Time format shows the Goggleboxing of our politics

The audience panel planned by the BBC programme shows how the imagined biases and preferences of voters are shaping debate.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Whether you’re enraged or engrossed by it, Question Time occupies a special place in the nation’s heart. With its usual broadcast time of 10:45pm on BBC One each Thursday, it is as much the preserve of political nerds tweeting along as families falling asleep in front of the telly and drunk students.

Roving around the country, inviting audience members to ask questions of its increasingly motley bunch of panellists, Question Time is the weekly ding-dong that inadvertently brought us “gammon” as a demographic descriptor, ruthless parodies (Harry & Paul’s “thebankersthebonusesthebankersthebonuses” and Dead Ringers’ “you, Sir, with the stupid face” spring to mind) and oddly enlightening moments (such as that man on £80,000 who appeared before the December 2019 general election who thought he wasn’t even in the top 50 per cent of earners).

It’s the only programme where an audience has been stunned into silence by an Iraqi Kurdish woman describing repeated brutality at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s regime, witnessed the detective sergeant from Lewis make a live descent into the culture wars, and watched a dwarf from Lord of the Rings bellowing at Green MP Caroline Lucas about voting systems.

With an unflattering number of appearances by Nigel Farage and a mooted all-male panel as late as last year, repeated criticism of Question Time’s guest bookings reveals just how significant its place in the hierarchy of political punditry is. After all, 87 per cent of the Great British public have heard of it, according to YouGov.

Yet a virus spread by airborne droplets has not been kind to a show that relies on a 150-strong studio audience, many of whom will be shouting. On 19 March, as Covid-19 was spreading, the programme, which came that week from Weston-super-Mare, was broadcast for the first time without an audience. It then moved to a studio in London to avoid unnecessary travel, reduced the number of panellists to four, rearranged them in a socially distanced deskless semicircle, and moved to a new 8pm timeslot to allow viewers to submit questions.

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Without the audience reactions and interactions, however, it isn’t the same programme. When I recently interviewed David Dimbleby – who chaired Question Time for 25 years before he left in December 2018 – he told me the “inter-audience debates” were key.

“It’s very dependent on that, because audience members hit it off against each other,” he said. “For every person who says ‘there are too many immigrants coming in from the EU’, somebody in the audience will say ‘actually, I’m Polish, and I married an Englishman and I’ve been living here for five years, do you want me to go?’”

Viewers seem to miss this too. At the end of last month, the Sun had to publish a correction to an article claiming the 1 October 2020 episode of Question Time had only received 620,000 viewers – the BBC press office said the figure was actually “a healthy 1.3 million viewers”.

This was revealing in itself, however, as viewing figures at the start of the pandemic on 20 March stood at 3.5 million – up one million from pre-pandemic levels. In an attempt to address the changed dynamic of the show, Question Time’s producers have decided to conduct a “temporary experiment” on the format while they wait for the return of studio audiences. Early next year, they will launch QT50, which will feature an audience panel of 50 people chosen from across the UK – a selection of whom will make up the Question Time audience each week over video.

“Over the course of several weeks, they will have more time to voice their opinions, have their say, share stories, questions and concerns,” the BBC says. “By seeing them over the course of several weeks, viewers can follow the evolution of their response to the pandemic and other issues.”

The idea seems to be to help viewers connect with the discussion via a regular audience, who will become increasingly familiar over the weeks. It sounds remarkably similar to the suggestion made by Dimbleby when we spoke in November.

“I thought under Covid, I suggested it should be like watching Gogglebox,” he told me, referencing the Channel 4 reality stalwart that films a regular cast of families in their living rooms watching the week’s TV.

“I suggested they reverse the whole role of Question Time during Covid, and have, say, 100 people round the country, or 50, who they selected very carefully to represent different opinions,” he said.

“So you’d have everything, from the far left, you’d have a couple in Northern Ireland, one Protestant, one Catholic, you’d have a Scottish independence [supporter] and a Scottish remainer, and you could build a picture of an audience, and then they would comment.”

He added: “You’d have a panel of politicians, but as they were talking, you’d pick up all the reactions of the other members of the audience – so you’d create again the spirit of Question Time, which is ‘he’s lying!’ ‘No, he’s not, he’s telling the truth!’”

QT50 is not only intriguing for what it says about the current state of Question Time (and, indeed, its former chair’s apparent prescience regarding the programme), but for what it reveals about the nature of modern British politics.

As my colleague Ailbhe Rea revealed earlier this year, No 10 receives almost daily public attitudes polling. It often feels as if the first consideration of many politicians and commentators is how an imagined “ordinary” individual or family is perceiving the latest development. A recent example may be the government’s instinct to “save Christmas” by loosening Covid-19 measures for the sake of a demoralised and emotionally exhausted public, when in reality there are high levels of sympathy for and compliance with restrictions.

This approach – interpreting politics first and foremost through the people watching it play out – could be a legacy of the Vote Leave campaign, which prided itself on accurately gauging the public mood and identifying overlooked yet influential voters, and until recently was embedded in Downing Street.

It’s what makes Boris Johnson appear as if he is constantly campaigning, instead of governing, both in his pandemic response and during the latest Brexit negotiations – even with the next general election four years away.

Vox pops, focus grouping and the imagined biases and preferences of “the man on the Clapham omnibus” have long been a lens through which our politicians view policies and journalists analyse them. But lately, the Goggleboxing of our politics appears to have become particularly acute.