Is there left or right-wing bias on BBC Question Time?

A close look at the numbers for the 2014-15 season yields surprising results.

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In July, Question Time completed a record-breaking run of 39 episodes. As the stage props are retrieved from a few months in storage and Twitter growls in anticipation for its Thursday evening politics splurge, it’s an appropriate time we glanced back and revisited the question the vexes so many: is there bias on Question Time?

When this question was last visited, my Twitter feed cluttered up with howls of disbelief. Doesn’t everyone know the BBC is a bastion of lefty bias? Aren’t the audiences sprinkled with agitators and Trots? A lesson, as if it needed repeating, that facts are never neutral. Of course, it may be news to the right but the left have problems with Question Time as well. Ask any left winger what they think about the programme.

If we’re interested in investigating this matter, how to determine whether there is bias on the show? I haven’t got a device that records the decibels of audience applause in response to panelists’ answers, and there’s no time to scrutinise each question asked in every episode and whether it’s left, right, or neutral(ish). What concerns me here are guests’ political affiliations, if any, and their general politics, which I’ve gleaned from the show and other media sources. It’s straight forward, if someone is known for holding a certain set of views then chances are Question Time will be another occasion to air them.

This does need further qualification, however. To those on the hard right, because a Tory MP might support marriage equality and be opposed to sexism, racism, and homophobia, that isn’t evidence of “leftism”. Nor for those on the far left does qualified support for markets and capitalism necessarily indicate right-wingery. Politics moves and changes. Centre-left politics in words and deeds today are about using the state to redistribute wealth and opportunity to the many, whereas for the centre right it is the belief that more markets means better outcomes for more people. That’s only more or less the case: this isn’t necessarily how I see the two great camps, but how adherents basically see their own positions.

Hence of the parties who were represented in the 2014-15 season of Question Time, Labour is centre left, the Conservatives centre right. The Liberal Democrats are in the centre, Ukip on the right, and Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru, and Respect range across the left. There were no Northern Ireland parties because, for the second year running, Question Time failed to travel across the Irish Sea.

The 2014-15 season had 139 guests spread over 195 appearances (slots). The Conservatives fielded 26 guests who occupied 39 slots between them. For their part, Labour had 24 guests who also took 39 slots. As the programme always tries to balance out representation by the main two parties this shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Lib Dems had 18 guests taking up 24 slots, Ukip 8 guests and 14 slots, Nationalists parties 10 guests and 14 slots (the SNP were 8 guests and 11 slots), and “Other” (Greens and Respect) were 3 guests, 5 slots.

In sum, that’s 34/53 for the right (Conservatives + Ukip), 18/24 for the centre (Lib Dems), and 47/58 for the left (Labour + Nationalists + Others). A clear imbalance, no?

Let’s see if this is addressed by the other guests featured here. Here, the pool is divided up into a clutch of different categories: Journalists (includes commentators and non-academic, non-fiction authors), celebrities (actors, comedians, novelists, the arts, sports), business people, trade unionists, academics (includes people from think tanks and research institutes), religion, campaigners (includes prominent activists and charity/third sector reps), and overseas guests.

The occupation orders stacked up like this:

Journalists: 30 guests, 38 slots, 8/12 left, 18/23 right, 1 lib, 2 un

Celebrities: 10 guests, 10 slots, 8 left, 1 right, 1 un

Business: 3 guests, 3 slots, 1 left, 2 right

Trade unions: 1 guest, 1 slot, 1 left

Academics: 3 guests, 3 slots, 1 lib, 2 right

Religion: 1 guest, 2 slots, 1/2 left

Campaigners: 1 guest, 2 slots, 1/2 right

Overseas: 1 guest, 1 slot, 1 right

That’s 19 left guests taking 24 slots, and 24 right guests occupying 31 slots. There are also two self-identified liberals and one guest who falls into unaligned owing to not having any positions that pin them down either way.

Combining the totals, the left have 56 guests and 82 slots, the “centre” 20 guests and 26 slots, and the right 58 guests and 84 slots.

IRREFUTABLE PROOF OF A RIGHT-WING BIAS ON QUESTION TIME!

Actually, no. That slight, slight tilt to the right is barely worth talking about. In terms of political content as provided by the guests there is more or less a balance. That’s right – just because you have a load of right wingers on one week or a plethora of lefties the next doesn’t mean it’s biased one way or the other: they balance out over the course of the season. And if this exercise is repeated across all of the seasons a tiny tilt either way will be repeated again and again. Being terribly sad, I know, I have worked up a couple of papers for academic politics journals on the various trends, biases, and other things over the last 36 years – when they are published you’ll hear more about them.

That doesn’t mean all is hunky dory in the Question Time garden. While it is pleasing more women and more minorities are featuring (57 women took 83 slots, 11 BME guests occupied 17 slots, and 7 LGBT people appeared 10 times – still some way to go!), what concerns me most is the narrowing of the pool from which the producers draw their guests. This is by far the most egregious bias on the show. Journalists are incredibly over-represented and, if that wasn’t bad enough, eight of them were on twice. Ditto celebrities (unsurprisingly, six of whom were comics); and of the business people all three of them doubled up as reality TV stars.

It never used to be like this. There was a time when the guests were drawn from across the occupational range – campaigners, business people, bishops and vicars, police, retired military personnel, crossbench peers, teachers, scientists, trade unionists. There was never a golden age of Question Time, but it did used to be much more representative. In a way, the diminution of guests from outside the circles of media currency (all the other guests outside celebrities and journalists had a media profile of sorts, be it an occasional CIF column here or a TV programme there) could be taken for reflecting where society is. From 1979 onwards, Question Time found expressed within it the social compact forged in the post-war period. As media influence has grown and the new settlement imposed in the 1980s and 90s dispersed the influence and standing of other professions, little wonder that media specialists featured so heavily.

Question Time‘s producers don’t have to reflect this development. It could go out of its way and get “proper” business people on, grab an academic or scientist, call up some lawyer-types and perhaps, gasp, even consider approaching more trade unionists or local government voices. Politics stands accused of getting evermore remote – the BBC can play a small part reversing this process.

Phil Burton-Cartledge blogs at All That Is Solid and lectures at the University of Derby. He tweets as @philbc3.